1999 was auto industry's best year; 17 million units sold reflects economic boom; Motor vehicles


DETROIT -- DaimlerChrysler AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. had record car and light truck sales in the United States in 1999, boosting the industry to its best year as discounts and higher consumer incomes stoked demand.

DaimlerChrysler, the third-largest automaker in the United States, said yesterday that its Chrysler division's sales climbed 5.1 percent, capped by a 0.7 percent gain in December. Toyota's 1999 sales gained 8.4 percent, while Honda's increased 6.7 percent.

Industrywide sales in the United States of about 17 million last year broke the 1986 record of 16.03 million, powered by the lowest unemployment in 29 years and rising personal wealth fed by climbing U.S. stocks.

The record year also marked a shift in momentum as Asian and European automakers gained market share at the expense of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler.

"Europeans and Japanese will continue to take over market share -- demand is not waning at all," said Wes Brown, an auto analyst with Nextrend in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "The brands with the strongest image and the vehicles that make fashion statements," like Toyota and Honda, are best-sellers, he said.

DaimlerChrysler's sales excluding Mercedes-Benz rose to 204,754 in December, missing analysts' average forecast of a 3.3 percent increase. Analysts estimate industry sales rose about 4.4 percent in December. For the year, DaimlerChrysler's sales touched a record 2.64 million cars and light trucks.

GM, the world's largest automaker, is expected to report today a 1.9 percent increase from December 1998 as the company boosted incentives.

Ford is also forecast to report a 3.5 percent decline in sales of North American-built cars and light trucks because of tough year-earlier comparisons.

U.S. sales at DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz unit climbed 11 percent to a record 189,437 in 1999, led by its E-Class sedan.

DaimlerChrysler and GM-driven discounts helped push last month's selling rate to an estimated 17.4 million, the eighth month of 1999 above 17 million. The last time U.S. auto sales reached the 16 million mark was 1986.

European and Asian automakers took 1.7 points of market share away from GM, Ford and Chrysler this year through November.

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