DETROIT — Gas prices may be lower than they were most of last year, but consumers still want to buy fuel-efficient cars, giving Asian automakers' sales a boost over Ford and GM in January.
Industrywide, sales for the month could be up nearly 1 percent to nearly 1.2 million compared with January 2006, when strong fleet sales propped up results, according to estimates from Edmunds.com, a research Web site for car buyers. Companies report January sales Thursday.
Jesse Toprak, chief economist for Edmunds.com, said Toyota Motor Corp. likely will post double-digit gains and Honda Motor Co.'s sales could rise nearly 10 percent.
The Honda Civic, which was redesigned this past year, did particularly well, while all Toyota products sold well, Toprak said. Neither carmaker had anything new to hit the market in January.
Despite a recent retreat in gas prices, Toprak said fuel efficiency — a strong point for Toyota and Honda — remains key.
“Consumers have no confidence in gas prices,” Toprak said. “They suspect they will be going back up anyway. It looks like in order to see a dramatic change in buying patterns, you need to see gas prices under $2 a gallon for no less than six months.”
Last year, high fuel prices drove consumers away from General Motor Corp.'s sport utility vehicles and light trucks, forcing the automaker to cut production.
Ford Motor Co. has said that it expects to further cut production in the first six months of 2007 as it works to bring manufacturing in line with lower demand for its products.
“If you make less cars, you are going to sell less cars,” Toprak said. “Some products haven't quite hit the showrooms full force. GM has new trucks, but it will take about six months to introduce all cab sizes and engine sizes in the U.S. market.”
Toyota has continued to gobble up market share and in 2006 passed DaimlerChrysler AG as the No. 3 auto seller in the U.S. for the first time during a full calendar year. This year, Toyota is expected to take Ford's No. 2 spot in U.S. sales after its sales surpassed Ford's in two months last year.
Toyota likely will beat Ford again in January, analysts say.
For the year, Chrysler has said its sales are expected to be slightly higher than in 2006, when they dropped 5.5 percent, as the company introduces eight models, including the mid-size Avenger sedan and Chrysler Sebring convertible. It hasn't made January estimates, but Edmunds.com expects Chrysler's January sales to be down about 2.6 percent.
Last week, GM said it expected sales for the month to be down from January 2006 as it continues to cut sales to rental-car firms.
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