Heavy discounting by General Motors and Ford, and rising demand for foreign brands, helped lift US vehicle sales in September even as the nation’s largest automakers likely lost market share, analysts told the Associated Press (AP).

Merrill Lynch analyst John Casesa reportedly said he expects a seasonally adjusted annual selling rate of 16.8 million units for September, up from 16.6 million in August and slightly below last September’s rate. Major automakers report September sales next Friday.

AP noted that, last week, in somewhat of an automotive clearance sale, GM and Ford began offering zero-interest, six-year loans on most remaining 2004 models – because of sluggish sales, both are saddled with an above-average backlog of vehicles.

“The new round of incentive programs underscores our view that despite recent production cuts, the industry – and GM in particular — would rather push demand than reduce supply,” Casesa said in a research report cited by the news agency.

Among foreign brands, Casesa told AP he expects Japanese manufacturers to rebound from August’s “less-than-spectacular performance.”

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Toyota saw sales slip nearly 3% in August, while business at Honda was off 7.1%, the report noted.

Toyota and Nissan could post double-digit increases for September, Casesa told the Associated Press, which added that, through August, GM’s 2004 sales were down 1.6%, while Ford was off 4.9%. On the plus side were Chrysler (up 2%), Toyota (up 8.8%) and Nissan (up 22.9%.)

Merrill Lynch reportedly forecasts GM’s September sales to be flat from a year ago, while Ford, still waiting for a boost from recent and upcoming launches of several new vehicles, is expected to post a 3% year-over-year decline.

A bright spot among the Big Three should be DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group, which continues to experience brisk demand for its new Chrysler 300C sedan and Dodge Magnum wagon, AP said.

“The Chrysler Group finds itself in the unaccustomed position of having a couple of ‘hot’ new models, as well as a few decidedly warm ones,” Burnham Securities analyst David Healy told AP.

Healy reportedly predicts an annual selling rate of 16.9 million units for September, the same as last year. His forecast: GM up 3%, Ford down 11%, Chrysler up 8%, foreign brands up 9%.

The weather, Healy told the Associated Press, continues to be somewhat of an uncertainty.

“Hurricanes affected vehicle deliveries in the Southeast in August and September, but we’ve been surprised at how little our sources in the industry believe the extreme weather affected national totals,” he reportedly said.