Hurricanes, petrol prices and over-extended employee pricing promotions took their toll on September's US new 'light' vehicle sales.

Automakers reported just over 1.32 million sales, down 7.7% from September 2004, The latest estimated 16.36 million cars and trucks full year total is now the lowest since January.

Year-to-date (YTD) volumes are still 3% ahead of the first nine months of last year but a bit of the padding built up over the summer has already worn away.

Hardest hit were Ford and General Motors, where Ward's Auto reports sales were down 20.3% and 24.2%, respectively. Both have now fallen about 1.3% behind their 2004 pace in YTD sales. Just a month ago, GM was still ahead by 2.1%.

Ford could at least point to a 5.9% improvement in sales of its domestic car brands, a comfort not enjoyed at GM, where car sales dropped 14%.

Both automakers took a major blow right in the bread-and-butter basket as the bottom dropped out of the full-size truck market. (See Graeme Roberts' separate report on US light truck sales for the details).

While it's premature to call this a trend, September's results should give executives in Dearborn and Detroit unmistakable evidence of just how vulnerable their four-wheeled profit centres have become.

Chrysler chalked up its 18th consecutive monthly increase. Overall sales were up 4%. Car sales were up 26%, led by a 69% leap in sales of the soon-to-be replaced Neon, a staple of US rental car fleets. Truck sales were off a comparatively minor 2% as the recently redesigned Ram pickup enjoyed its best September since 1999 and Jeep - also with new models - jumped sales 11%.

The biggest hit to Pentastar pride was in the minivan segment. Sales of the Dodge Caravan (Chrysler Voyager in export markets) declined enough to give the Toyota Sienna the top spot for the month. Though the margin was just 189 sales, this is the first time since January 2003 the Caravan hasn't been alpha dog in the minivan pack.

Import brands picked up an additional 6.8% of the total light vehicle market as Acura, Audi, Infiniti, Honda, Hyundai, Lexus, Mercedes, Nissan and Suzuki (launching a new Grand Vitara small SUV) set new monthly records.

Flush with back-to-back improvements in August and September, Volkswagen delayed its report an extra day to count up sales of the newly redesigned Jetta and Passat lines. Of German automakers, Porsche alone missed its 2004 mark.

Captive import brands bucked the positive trend with double-digit plunges at Ford's Jaguar and GM's Saab and a 9.7% decline at Ford-owned Volvo. Only the bliue oval's Land Rover was in the black with a 44.8% improvement over 2004.

Passenger cars were the big movers in September, claiming their largest slice of the sales pie since January 2003. Once again, the import brands were the big beneficiaries, accounting for over 60.8% of sales. The increase came at the expense of SUVs and pickups, as the van segment also showed a small improvement.

The tropics are relatively calm for the moment but two months remain in what has been an active storm season. Petrol prices - recently hiked by storm damage to oil producing and refining facilities in southern states - remain well above year-ago levels and are unlikely to drop too far as home heating oil will soon be placing competing demands on America's already strained refining capacity.

Interest rates are rising and consumer confidence is declining.

While the industry hopes the worst has now passed, October and November may prove very challenging for some automakers.

Bill Cawthon

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