Amid plunging June sales, Ford's 10.7% drop looks good

Sales at Ford and Chrysler last month offered sharply different views on the downtrodden U.S. market for cars and trucks, while General Motors held its own as it entered bankruptcy protection.

Ford's June sales showed signs of stabilization, as the healthiest Detroit automaker posted its smallest sales decline of the year at 10.7%. It also said it gained market share. But Chrysler, just weeks after exiting bankruptcy protection, reported a 42% drop in sales, hurt by a big cut in fleet sales and declines in all its models except the Dodge Challenger muscle car.

GM reported a 33.4% sales drop, slightly larger than the 30% drop it reported for May before it entered bankruptcy protection. GM plans to sell or close Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Saab to focus on four core brands —Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick.

June sales from other automakers indicated that the industry downturn has begun leveling off. Toyota's U.S. sales fell 32% in June to 131,654 units — a smaller decline than in previous months for the Japanese automaker.

Economists say there are signs that the economy is recovering, with housing starts rising more than expected in May and wholesale prices remaining in check. But the Conference Board reported Wednesday that consumer confidence fell unexpectedly in June.

"We're making steady progress," Jim Farley, the company's group vice president of marketing, said in a statement. "We remain grounded, however, given challenging industry and economic conditions."

Ford is the sole U.S. automaker to avoid bankruptcy protection and it's the only one not receiving government loans to keep from running out of money. GM and Chrysler are receiving billions in loans, with GM inching its way closer to escaping Chapter 11.

Several analysts predict that June sales, adjusted for seasonal variances and multiplied to determine an annual rate, will top the 10 million mark for the first time this year. During several months earlier in 2009, U.S. car and truck sales dropped to a rate of about 9 million vehicles, a huge reduction from more than 16 million as recently as 2007.

But any jump in the annual rate could be fueled by fire-sale prices at 789 Chrysler dealers that were fired by the company during the bankruptcy process and told to get rid of their inventory by June 9. Also, GM has announced that it will get rid of its Pontiac brand, with incentives rising on those models.

One bright spot for Toyota was its recently released third-generation Prius, which saw sales rise 10%. Prius sales had suffered in recent months as gas prices plunged from more than $4 per gallon last summer to below $2 a gallon in the winter.

Nissan, the No. 3 Japanese automaker, also enjoyed a better month. Its sales fell 23% to 48,298 in June on sales declines of its top-selling Altima sedan. The automaker sold 2,137 units of its boxy Nissan Cube in its first month of sales, while sales of its 350/370Z roadster climbed 11%.

Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford has seen its market share grow while rivals Chrysler, which emerged from bankruptcy protection on June 10, and General Motors struggle.

The monthly decline was Ford's smallest since July of last year, a sign of life amid the worst slump in 27 years. Ford sold 154,873 cars and light trucks last month, helped by sales of the 2010 Fusion midsize car, which rose 26% over the previous year's model. Ford introduced the new models in April, including a hybrid version.

Chrysler said it sold only 68,297 vehicles last month, despite fire-sale prices at 789 dealerships that the company terminated.

Ford's surprisingly low decline came after a string of months in which it and other automakers reported year-over-year drops of more than 40%. Ford's sales were down 24% in May and off 37% for the first five months of the year.

Sales of Ford crossover vehicles fell only 1%, spurred by a dramatic increase in sales of the seven-passenger Flex. Ford sold 4,784 Flex vehicles in June, a 247% increase from June 2008 when Flex sales were only 1,379.

Sales of its giant Expedition sport-utility vehicle rose 7.1%, likely due to lower gas prices. Nationally, regular unleaded gasoline averaged 2.64 a gallon in June, compared with an average of $4.05 a gallon a year ago.

Sales of the company's popular F-series trucks were down 7.4%, but sales of its smaller Ranger truck rose 8.8%.

"The important takeaway is that we're not going backward, we're not slipping back," Ford's top sales analyst, George Pipas, said Monday.

In anticipation of increased traffic at dealers and higher sales later in the year, Ford announced Monday that it would boost its third-quarter production by 25,000 vehicles.