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Car comeback

October 8, 2012 12:10 am

THANK GOODNESS Americans' automobile amore has weathered the economic storm. Sales figures for September show that new vehicles were zooming off dealers' lots at the fastest pace in four years.

This is welcome news in a fiscal climate that is a long way from hale. Not only does it mean that people are willing to spend some money on big-ticket items, it also causes automakers to hire workers to build them.

But the sales figures also provide a detailed look at the types of vehicles that are selling--and the companies that are building the most popular models.

Without a doubt, Detroit is enjoying a fledgling renaissance. Four years ago, the American automobile industry was on its deathbed. Both the outgoing President Bush and the incoming President Obama decided the industry needed to be propped up for the good of the free-falling U.S. economy. GM and Chrysler took the handouts, but Ford did not.

The wisdom behind the $85 billion bailouts may be debated for years to come--especially in that GM, for example, is still on the hook for $23 billion of the taxpayers' money, largely because its stock is down by a third from its high in January 2011. But the bailouts were not designed just to save Detroit's bacon; they were supposed to help the automakers retool their plants as they designed and built new and more efficient models that people would actually buy. Achievement of this novel goal remains a work in progress.

Just as long-troubled baseball teams like the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles have had to win consistently to earn the trust of their fans, U.S. automakers must continue to prove themselves worthy to compete with the successful Asian franchises.

While Toyota's sales are up 41.5 percent and Honda's 31 percent, GM registered a modest 1.5 percent gain. Chrysler sales, meanwhile, rose 11.5 percent.

Consider that GM's car sales, including those of the compact Chevy Cruze, jumped 29 percent. What hurt the company were sagging sales of SUVs and trucks, down 12 percent. Though Ford has "Focus"ed on bolstering its small-car line, its dependence on moving the gas-thirsty F-150 pickup in an era of high prices at the pump left its total sales up a measly 0.5 percent in September. Perhaps a new version of the discontinued Ford Ranger small pickup would be a recuperative tonic. With an increase of 36.6 percent in truck and SUV sales, Toyota is king of that hill.

Some of the Toyota/Honda numbers can be attributed to pent-up demand: Post-Japan-earthquake production lagged because of inadequate parts supplies from the island nation. On that general subject, even though their headquarters remain overseas, many of the popular Asian models are built in America by American workers--and jobs are jobs no matter who signs the checks.





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