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Ford sees January sales off 20%

Lower rental-car volume blamed
DEARBORN, Mich. — Fresh off an announcement of a nearly $13 billion 2006 loss, Ford Motor Co. expects to report a 20 percent drop in January U.S. auto sales today, largely because of lower purchases by rental-car companies.

But the automaker said its turnaround plan is on track. General Motors Corp. said last week that it expects its January sales to fall to year-earlier figures, also because of lower rental fleet sales.

While the decline in fleet sales hurts overall sales numbers, GM and Ford have said they are trying to focus on more profitable sales to retail customers as part of their North American restructuring efforts.

Ford's January fleet sales are expected to be off 60 percent, and the company's top sales analyst said Ford might post severe drops for several months.

Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said what happens this year to the F-series truck line, including the Louisville-built Super Duty, is largely dependent on how the housing industry fares.

The F-series truck is Ford's bread-and-butter product and the largest-selling vehicle in the United States, but its sales were off almost 12 percent in 2006 compared with 2005.

Ford sales analyst George Pipas said during a news briefing yesterday that the company's overall retail sales should be about flat compared to those in January 2006.

Last month's retail sales will be boosted by the new Edge crossover and rising sales of the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ midsized sedans, he said.

"Retail sales are holding up really well compared to January of last year," Pipas said.

Ford sold about 2.7 million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles in the United States last year, and about 900,000 of those were to fleet buyers, Pipas said.

About half the fleet sales went to low-profit rental companies, and the rest were profitable sales to commercial and government fleets, he said.

Fleet sales should drop this year by 20 percent overall, due largely to Ford ceasing production of the Taurus sedan, Pipas said. Ford sold about 175,000 Tauruses last year, mostly to fleet buyers.

The company said resale values of its vehicles are improving, and 10 of its 11 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln cars are now recommended by Consumer Reports.

But the automaker also said that up to 20 percent of its dealerships haven't received one Ford Edge to sell.

The automaker started delivering the cars later than expected on Dec. 7.

Ford officials blamed the delay on bad weather. The Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers are built at the company's plant in Ontario.

The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press contributed to this story.

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