Move over, Ford: Chevy set to take lead
Analysts say GM's bread-and-butter line will become nation's best-selling brand.
By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News
The champagne is chilling at General Motors Corp.’s Chevrolet division, which is poised to overtake Ford as the nation’s best-selling automotive brand this year.
Some analysts predict an end to Ford’s 17-year reign as the industry’s sales champ, a mantle the automaker has long used to rally employees, motivate dealers and entice new customers.
Ford led Chevy by about 54,000 vehicles through August — a sliver of the 700,000-unit lead it held five years ago, according to Autodata Corp.
In fact, Chevy outsold Ford by about 18,000 models last month and 34,000 vehicles in July. September sales will be released Friday, and both brands are staging clearance sales to finish the month strong.
Automotive forecaster Global Insight Inc. estimates Ford will end the year with sales of 2.66 million cars and trucks, down from 2.85 million in 2003, said analyst Rebecca Lindland. Chevy is on course to record sales of 2.69 million.
Despite the projections, Chevy isn’t popping any corks just yet.
“Just because we’re closing the gap, there’s no reason to celebrate victory any time soon,” said Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman for product development. “It won’t change the history of the world. But it would be a useful rallying point for the Chevy organization, internally and for our dealers.”
If Ford does lose its sales crown, it’s largely due to its reluctance to dump sales into rental car fleets and match Chevy dollar for dollar on incentives. Ford decided in the past year or so to focus on retail sales.
“If that costs us leadership, I guess I will be willing to congratulate Chevrolet on becoming the largest seller of rental cars in the world,” said Steve Lyons, Ford Division president. “And they can have that title.”
Ford said it won’t chase sales for bragging rights, no matter how sweet they may be.
“We have pulled back (on fleet sales) and we are going to pull back even more next year and the year after,” Lyons said. “We didn’t sell fewer rental cars this year because we weren’t competitive. It’s because we chose not to.”
Chevy last outsold Ford in 1986 with sales of 2.9 million vehicles, compared with Ford’s 2.7 million unit sales, Autodata says.
Ford wrested the sales crown from Chevrolet in 1987 with the help of the popular Taurus sedan. When the Explorer sport utility vehicle joined Ford’s lineup in 1990, it helped widen Ford’s lead even further.
The blue oval has stayed ahead of the bow tie ever since.
But 18 months ago, Chevy officials vowed an unprecedented flurry of new cars and trucks over the next few years would propel Chevy back “to its position as America’s favorite brand.”
Both sides are launching a new wave of key products this fall that will decide how close the race will finish.
In addition to the Silverado pickup and new Equinox SUV, Chevrolet will add an all-new Corvette and the new Cobalt small car to its arsenal. Ford is counting on the all-new Mustang, the new Five Hundred sedan and the Freestyle crossover to complement the top-selling F-150 pickup and Explorer SUV.
“This is going to be combat — down to the wire,” said Jim Sanfilippo, executive vice president of AMCI Inc., a Detroit-based automotive marketing firm. “It’s going to depend on how fast Ford can get to market with the Five Hundred and the Mustang.”
The Ford-Chevy feud has seethed for generations. It plays out from dealer showrooms to neighborhood driveways to the NASCAR racing circuit.
In Detroit, the stakes are higher. Livelihoods hang in the balance.
And while pride can’t pay the bills, it was — and remains, for some — a prime motivator for continuing the competition. To others, the Ford-Chevy rivalry doesn’t seem quite so important now that foreign automakers are gaining ground on both brands.
“There are vast amounts of foreign vehicles that are being produced here on American soil,” said Tom Spears, first vice president of UAW Local 3000, which represents workers at the Flat Rock plant where the Mustang is assembled.
The competitive fire still burns hot at the dealership level.
“It sure is with us — we’re right next to the biggest Ford dealer in the city,” said Bill Studebaker, general manager of Buff Whelan Chevrolet in Sterling Heights. His store competes head-to-head with Jerome Duncan Ford.
If there’s a party to celebrate an end to Ford’s sales dominance, Studebaker said he’ll invite his neighbors at Jerome Duncan.
Scott Reas, general manager at Jerome Duncan, said he’d accept Studebaker’s invitation “in the spirit of fun.” But Reas was quick to note Ford is still ahead in the important pickup sales race. “And I’d be glad to pass him the crying towel.”