American consumers took a break in October, writes Bill Cawthon.

Ward's reports US light vehicle sales slowed to just over 1.3 million, their lowest volume since February. Analysts blamed everything from reduced incentives to the fires in Southern California for the 15.6 million-unit annualised rate, which was well below expectations.

Light trucks took their largest share of the market so far this year. This helped domestic brands regain a little bit of ground, as GM, Ford and Chrysler claimed 60.1% of total sales.

As predicted, Chrysler was the only Detroit vehicle maker to post a gain, largely due to a weak month last year. Chrysler came in 11% ahead of October 2002 and now trails in total year-to-date (YTD) sales by just 5%. Thanks to good showings by the Dodge pickups and Jeep SUVs, light truck sales are now slightly ahead of last year.

GM missed its mark by 7.2% as weak car sales were accompanied by weaker light truck sales. Ford lost just 2%, thanks to another good month from the new F-Series. The only other Ford trucks to beat their 2002 numbers were the Escape and its antithesis, the Excursion, which may yet be saved from the corporate headsman.

German and Swedish luxury marques did well in October as BMW, Mercedes and Porsche all posted new sales records. Audi missed its 2002 record by just 17 sales. Saab YTD sales hit 40,000 on Halloween; their best showing in 16 years, while Volvo posted an October sales record as well as its 12th straight month of improved sales.

This wasn't enough to catch Lexus; the successful RX330 led Toyota's luxury division to its own October sales record. The flagship LS430 was one of three car models posting big gains over October 2002.

Toyota brand sales were up 11.7%. The new Sienna minivan appears to be hitting its stride with record sales in October, coming in second only to the Dodge Caravan. As I expected, the Sienna is taking more sales from the Odyssey than the Caravan. Caravan numbers were up in October, while the Odyssey took a 16.4% hit.

Nissan also improved, led by a 41.3% gain from its resurgent Infiniti line. Infiniti is a textbook example of what happens when desirable new products accompany cost controls. Detroit should try this concept.

Big surprise from Honda: big declines in Accord and Civic sales. The Civic's 26.4% plunge puts it in the red in YTD results. The pain was lessened by record sales of the Pilot and CR-V, giving Honda its best-ever light truck sales month.

The biggest news from a Japanese car maker was Mazda's spectacular 52.3% jump. Mazda's sales announcements are seldom early, but this time I think the delay may have been due to a celebration.

With YTD sales down only 1.5% from last year, vehicle manufacturers are hoping for good numbers in the next two months. However, November has not been a strong month in recent years. This means a lot will be riding on lively spirits and spending in December.

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