July brought good news for several automakers in the United States, writes Bill Cawthon. Ward’s Auto reported sales of 1,509,013 light vehicles, making July second only to May in sales volume this year. That total was off the record pace of July 2002, but high enough to yield a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate of 17.3 million, the best of any month in 2003.

Big winners were the German luxury marques. Mercedes reported a 20.7% improvement, thanks to strong sales of E- and C-class cars. BMW Group had a record July as car sales surged 17.9%. Porsche’s Cayenne overcame slowing sales of the Boxster and 911 to deliver a 7% improvement.

Volvo posted its ninth consecutive month of improved numbers and reported record July sales. Jaguar showed a slight improvement, thanks to a 51.9% jump in XJ sales.

The top three Japanese automakers reported better sales. Toyota and Honda set new records for July and Nissan was up almost 6% as Infiniti continued to deliver good results.

Toyota’s Scions had a second good month. The boxy xB is still preferred by most customers. Honda’s Element stumbled slightly in July.

Biggest loser for the month was Isuzu, which continued its downward spiral. Mitsubishi came next, dropping 34%. Volkswagen is now more than 12% off its 2002 pace. One bright spot for VW was the Touareg, which had a reasonable debut.

The Koreans split: Hyundai dropped slightly while KIA came in ahead of July 2002.

The Detroit automakers did not fare as well: Chrysler, Ford and GM all came up short, from GM’s 5.5% drop to another double-digit plunge for Ford. Sales of Ford-branded passenger cars were down over 20%, dropping Ford behind Toyota and Honda in that segment.

GM’s cloud had a silver lining. Not only did it hit a 30.1% share for the month, sales of Chevrolet-badged light vehicles beat those of Ford, the SILVERADO bumped the F-Series off the top of the sales chart, and both the Impala and Cavalier outsold the Taurus. Sales of the F-Series, which included the new 2004 model, improved 15%, but couldn’t match the Silverado’s 27.7% surge.

There was some good news for Ford and Chrysler. Ford’s SUVs, including the Escape, had a good sales month and Chrysler’s Pacifica seems to have overcome its early fumble.

SUVs grabbed over 27% of the total market in July. Pickups also gained share. Their gains came from passenger cars, which dropped to just over 45% of light vehicle sales.

Imports claimed more than 40% of total US light vehicle sales for the third time this year, an ominous sign for Detroit. Last month, the imports sold a record 56.8% of all passenger cars, as well as 48.9% of minivans and 37.2% of SUVs.

Only in pickups did Detroit retain dominance, with 89.3% of the segment.

Automakers are hoping for better results in the remainder of 2003, but it will likely take some positive news on the employment front before car makers can ease off incentives so good sales can also mean good profits.