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The New Economy

US auto sales fall to 1981 lows

By / March 3, 2009

A plunge in auto sales forced this Pontiac GMC dealership in Newark, Calif., to close earlier this year.

Paul Sakuma/AP

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Want to buy a car? You're in a select minority.

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US auto sales slumped again in February with major carmakers reporting year-over-year declines of anywhere from 37 to 53 percent. That's the 15th straight month of falling sales and plunged the industry to sales levels not seen since 1981.

Pleas for help

What does that mean?

B-A-I-L-O-U-T!

In a slump that has even Toyota reporting sales down 40 percent, domestic automakers have powerful ammunition for requesting additional federal assistance beyond the $17.4 billion that General Motors and Chrysler have already taken.

Absent a new bailout, they can't survive long at these depressed levels. GM saw its sales fall 53 percent; Ford, 48 percent; and Chrysler, 44 percent.

Incentives vs. gloom

February's decline came despite robust dealer incentives. The only incentive that did work was Hyundai's reverse bailout, which allows its customers to return their cars within a year if they lose their job or suffer some other financial reverse that doesn't allow them to keep up payments.

What a concept! A private automaker offering to help out Americans instead of asking them for a handout.

No wonder the South Korean automaker saw its US sales dip only 2 percent.

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