Whoops of joy at General Motors and quiet, gritted-teeth resignation at Ford and Chrysler is the likely scenario in Detroit on Friday now that the February sales numbers are in.

After a rollercoaster week that saw key sharemarket indices worldwide follow China into free-fall (since rebounded somewhat), the new US Federal Reserve Bank chief use the word ‘recession’ in a Capitol Hill committee grilling, driving snow and tornadoes across many states, and a downfall in new home sales (a key US economic indicator), GM sales executives probably could have used a break.

And they got it – sales up 3.7% year on year to 308,541 for February, boosted by extra volume in high-margin models like the big Silverado pickup truck and a welcome from buyers for the new Acadia crossover.

Year to date, GM volume is off 6.4% at 553,257 but take a look at Ford: February sales down a whopping 14.3% to 204,496 and off 16.7% to 366,838 in the first two months.

In a statement, the struggling automaker – who restructuring cost was pegged at about $US11bn this week – said its sales to daily rental companies were 30% lower than a year ago as it “continued its planned reduction in this market”.

Lower sales to daily rental companies (down 16,000 units) accounted for about half of the decline while sales to individual retail customers were down 8%.

“Our objective is to deliver more of the products that people want and, in doing so, stabilise retail share,” said Ford’s Americas chief Mark Fields. “We’re encouraged by the results we have achieved over the past several months.”

Chrysler – whose sales executives have noted that recent talk of a possible sale has hit vehicle volume, especially employee purchases that account for 70% of Detroit area volume – fared a little better: February units off 8.3% to 174,506 units and year to date volume of 330,814 down 4.3%.

Chrysler said it had cut inventory 8% compared to February 2006 when it was at 532,534 units.

It added that Dodge Ram pickup sales “continued to increase after an already strong January” and posted sales of 28,633 units, up 17% month on month.

Toyota, which pundits expect to overtake Ford in the US this year, had a good February with sales up 12.2% to 187,330 and 10.9% to 363,180 YTD, just 3,500 units shy of the Blue Oval.

“Sales were brisk at both ends of our product lineup,” said Toyota Motor Sales USA executive vice president Jim Lentz. “Setting an all-time record, the Prius hybrid led the way, nearly doubling last February’s sales pace; while the new full-size Tundra got off to an impressive start since hitting showrooms February 5th.”

The Toyota Division posted its best February sales of 164,812, up 13%, while luxury Lexus had best-ever February sales of 22,518 units, up 6.6%.

TMS calendar-year-to-date hybrid sales totalled 33,182 units, an increase of 45% year on year.

Honda rises were 3.2% to 110,026 units in February and 2.8% to 210,816 year to date.

The US unit said the Honda brand had its best February ever with record sales of 96,368 cars and light trucks, up 4.2%, with Accord sales of 30,370 up 20.1%. Redesigned CR-V SUV volume soared 31% to 13,524 – some are now US-built.

Honda sold 2,236 hybrids with the Civic model up 8.1% to 1,924 units.

Nissan volume was essentially flat in February (85,237, +1.2%) and is up 4.8% for the year (167,885). The automaker surprised industry observers recently by offering buyouts to some US assembly workers after sales of its large petrol V8-powered trucks and SUVs softened.

Mitsubishi is showing signs of recovery – from the bottom of the pond – as redesigned models like the Outlook and upcoming Lancer find US buyer favour: it boosted February sales 21.9% to 9,726 and has notched up 19,109 (+23.7%) so far this year.

Hyundai claimed a “best February ever” with sales up 1.4% to 34,500. Sales of the redesigned, now US-built, Santa Fe SUV doubled. Year to date, the Korean automaker’s volume is off 3.1% to 62,221.

Hyundai sibling Kia – with a US plant in the works – boosted year to date sales 18.6% to 46,036 units while its February volume was up 13.5% to 23,512. Kia said its subcompact Spectra (C-segment in Europe) enjoyed a strong month with 4,545 units, up 10.8%.

Apart from Porsche, whose 27.1% plunge to 1,967 units last month can be blamed on the Cayenne SUV model changeover, there should also be smiles in most European automakers’ US offices on Friday.

King of the hill is Mercedes, who, despite a 0.4% downturn to 17,305 units in February, is up 15.2% to 34,374 YTD.

BMW, with new 3-series variants and engines now on tap, was up 11.9% to 24,642 last month (+5.0% to 46,453 YTD) while Volkswagen, also buoyed by some new models like the Rabbit (Golf), was up 8.7% to 22,976 units in February and 45,985 (+5.8%) YTD. It’s worth noting that VW had to drop its popular diesels for the 2007 model year, too, due to emission law changes.

Mercedes said its February highlights included a 12.8% increase for the US-built M-Class luxury SUVs (2,431 v. 2,155) and a 212.7% increase in G-Class volume (172 vs 55).

“Sales for Mercedes vehicles in the luxury light truck segment continue to exhibit a strong performance as a group with a 15.7% increase over February 2006,” the automaker added.

The redesigned Mini only went on sale in the US on 17 February so sales of 2,368, down 12.0%, were not unexpected. YTD sales of 4,418 were off 21.6%.

As the reports roll in, the pundits’ verdict of February’s US market appears to range from ‘flat’ to ‘better than expected’.

Edmunds.com analyst Alex Rosten told the Detroit News: “Everyone expected their sales to be down. Nobody expected their retail to be so strong.”

Overall, the US market was flat – 1,249,103 light vehicle sales in February was down 0.6%. YTD, the total is off 2.5% to 2,336,471.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Graeme Roberts