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Ford's Sept. sales flat as auto buying slows

Ford Motor Co. said Wednesday that its U.S. sales were down slightly in September as car and truck sales slowed from their torrid August pace.

Ford, General Motors and the Chrysler group tweaked their incentives Wednesday, raising the deals on 2004 models as their 2003 model stocks declined thanks to record-high rebates and generous loan deals.

U.S. auto sales due Wednesday were expected to hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 16.7 million in September, according to a Reuters survey of industry analysts.

That would be well below the 19 million annual rate hit in August, when the Big 3 and several foreign competitors pushed to clear 2003 models from dealers' lots. But it would be better than the 16.2 million rate from September 2002, which followed a similar August boom.

While some analysts see it as a sign of strength among consumers, others questioned how many sales came from old 2003 models carrying rebates of as much as $7,000.

Ford's sales were down 0.5 percent excluding foreign brands and heavy trucks, with its new F-150 pickup selling strongly. Estimates for Ford's sales had ranged from flat to down 10 percent as the automaker faced a tough comparison with last year.

While Ford hasn't offered quite as much in incentives as GM, it did reach new ground in Detroit's price war in September by offering six-year, no-interest loans on five models, including its Explorer SUV.

"Ford's September performance is not due to a product-led revitalization; it's due to Ford's large stock of 2003 model-year vehicles that it is clearing out with unprecedented incentives," Goldman Sachs analyst Gary Lapidus said in a research note.

Ford has been forced to push for deeper cost cuts to meet its profit forecasts thanks to higher-than-expected costs from Detroit's price wars. It said Tuesday that it was cutting about 3,050 salaried jobs in North America, nearly all from contract workers and vacant positions.

Among the Big 3, only GM is expected to have a good performance in September. Analysts predict GM sales could rise by as much as 10 percent, thanks to a comparison with weak results in September 2002.

GM on Wednesday sweetened its U.S. sales incentives on much of its lineup, with "bonus cash" on many pickups and SUVs as well as zero-percent financing on more vehicles.

After being outsold by Toyota Motor Corp. in August, Chrysler may not find much relief in September. Analysts expect Chrysler to suffer the worst sales decline of the Big 3, with results down as much as 15 percent.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. said its sales were up nearly 20 percent, thanks to strong sales of new models such as its Quest minivan and 350Z sports car.

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