August fulfilled the analysts' projections, coming in with the best numbers so far this year, writes Bill Cawthon. Ward's reports US light vehicle sales totalled nearly 1.63 million units, slightly off last year's record pace.

It was an especially good month for the import brands. Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru and Toyota all posted new all-time records. Audi had a record August and is now ahead of 2002 in year-to-date (YTD) sales.

Toyota had plenty of good news. New records were set in sales of both cars and trucks and Toyota passed Ford and Chevrolet to become the best-selling passenger car brand for the month. Lexus also had a good month as the RX330 passed the 10,000-unit mark for the first time, giving Toyota's premium marque the lead in August and YTD sales. Ironically, Toyota's strong performance wasn't enough to give it the top spot in passenger car sales. That honour went to the Honda Accord.

Cadillac had its best month since October 1990 and was second only to Lexus in total luxury sales for August. Cadillac car sales were especially strong, coming in ahead of Lexus, BMW and Mercedes.

The good news was not universal. Ford sales dropped 11.9%, the most of any of the Detroit automakers. Chrysler missed its 2002 mark by a smaller 6.4% margin. GM fared best, with a drop of one-half percent.

The import brands capitalised on Detroit's slump, capturing over 42% of reported light vehicle sales. They also increased their share of the passenger car market to almost 60%, a new high. Surprisingly, car sales have reclaimed a bit more of the total market for the past two months. This may be a temporary effect of the spike in US petrol prices, but it bears watching.

Ford had one bit of good news; the F-Series recaptured the lead in light vehicle sales. But that was about it: Ford's problems were masked by good performances from Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo, which had another month of improved sales. Sales of Ford's domestic brands were down over 16%, with a better than 30% drop in passenger car sales. To the end of August, Ford is almost 6% behind 2002 in total sales. Dearborn has a lot riding on the new F-Series, which got its big advertising kick-off this week.

Chrysler is in only marginally better shape. Its market share is now below 12% and Toyota was within 17,000 sales of capturing the No. 3 spot last month. However, the Caravan and Ram pickup both posted good numbers and the Pacifica seems to be hitting its stride with another month of improved sales.

As expected, GM and Chrysler announced new financing and rebate programs before releasing their August figures. A recent JD Powers study showed Americans have come to expect incentives and the size of the package has become an important factor in consumer decisions. This means there will be continued pressure on industry profits until automakers can develop compelling new products or the economy improves enough to allow more freedom in pricing.

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