Car, truck sales in 1998 rise 2.9% to 15.6 million; GM, Toyota, Honda sales better than expected in Dec.; Motor vehicles


DETROIT -- General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. posted higher-than-expected December sales, benefiting from strong truck demand and big discounts in the auto industry's second-best U.S. sales year.

GM said yesterday that its domestic sales rose 2.8 percent. That beat estimates of a 4.6 percent decline and pushed its stock to a 52-week high. GM's stock, up about 10 percent since Monday, rose $3.4375 to close at $78.0625.

Toyota shares surged 19 percent yesterday as its Camry sedan captured top-selling U.S. car honors for 1998, surpassing Honda's Accord again. Final year-end sales figures showed that a total of 429,575 Camrys were sold, compared with 401,071 Accords. Ford's Taurus placed third with 371,074 sold.

"A repeat is always a little more challenging and difficult," said Don Esmond, vice president and general manager of the Toyota division of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

Car and light truck sales hit 15.6 million for 1998, up 2.9 percent from 1997 and trailing only the 16.05 million of 1986. U.S. automakers lost market share, mostly to European makers with new products such as Volkswagen AG's Beetle.

Ford had the best seller of all vehicles for the 17th straight year with its F-series truck. F-series sales totaled 836,629, the most for any one vehicle in the United States in two decades.

Sales rose 7 percent from the same month in 1997, well ahead of the expected 1.1 percent gain. December's annual sales rate of 17.3 million was the highest of any month since 1986, said Michael Luckey, president of the Luckey Consulting Group.

Among automakers who reported Tuesday, Ford Motor Co. sales climbed 7.1 percent and DaimlerChrysler AG's rose 6.9 percent.

Analysts and economists expect some slowing of auto sales for 1999, though many estimates still range above a strong 15 million. Rebates are likely to taper off as GM finishes recovering from the costly strikes that shut down its production last summer.

GM expects industrywide car and light truck sales of 14.7 million in 1999, but might raise that forecast, said Michael DiGiovanni, the automaker's chief market analyst.

GM's sales of domestically built cars rose 1.5 percent to 210,876 from same month a year ago. Sales of its minivans, sport-utility vehicles and pickups rose 4.3 percent to 188,434. The automaker captured 29.9 percent of U.S. vehicle sales in December, down from 31.1 percent in December 1997, but the company expects its market share to improve in 1999.

For the year, GM, Ford and the Chrysler unit of Daimler lost 1.3 percentage points of U.S. market share, dropping to 70.2 percent. Japanese automakers gained 0.3 percentage points, to 24.9 percent, and European automakers gained 1.0 percentage points, to 4.9 percent.

Among the Europeans, Volkswagen reported a 59 percent sales increase in December, helped by sales of its New Beetle car. Mercedes-Benz and Audi each posted 39 percent increases.

Toyota, Japan's largest automaker, sold 138,720 cars and light trucks in December, surpassing estimates of a 9.9 percent gain. Camry sales totaled 429,575 in 1998, an 8.2 percent rise that outpaced the 401,071 Accords sold by Honda.

Honda's U.S. sales edged above 1 million for the first time, rising 7.4 percent from 1997. Its December sales rose 6.3 percent to 83,936.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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