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http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051201/BUSINESS01/512010470/1014

Chevy poised to end Ford's reign as No. 1

GM brand ahead in 2005 sales as U.S. rival slumps

December 1, 2005
BY MICHAEL ELLIS

Jason Hallman, who sold Ford cars and trucks for nine years, did something this summer he had never done before -- he bought a Chevrolet.

After quitting his job as a Ford salesman last year, the 32-year-old father of two felt free to buy whatever vehicle suited his family.

After checking out a few different cars and SUVs, Hallman decided to trade in his Ford F-150 pickup and buy a red Chevrolet Cobalt coupe.

"It was the first time in my life, as an adult, I could go to a dealership and buy what I liked," said the Canton resident, who quit his job at Jack Demmer Ford in Wayne in 2003. "It was kind of an eye-opening experience.

"I was looking to get the most car I could for the money," Hallman, who also owns a 2004 Mercury Mountaineer SUV, said this week.

More and more Americans are coming to the same conclusion as Hallman.

For the first time since 1986, Chevrolet could top the Ford nameplate this year as the best-selling brand in the United States.

The battle for bragging rights is tight. Through the first 10 months this year, Chevrolet led the Ford brand in U.S. sales by 2,272,218 to 2,257,104 -- a margin of 15,114 cars and trucks. That's equivalent to just a few days' worth of sales.

Both brands are scheduled to report sales for November today, and year-end clearance incentives could help Chevrolet extend its lead.

The Corvette is the only Chevy left out of GM's Red Tag sale. Ford excluded two top-selling cars -- the Fusion and the Mustang -- from its latest incentives.

New vehicles like the Chevrolet HHR small car have pushed the General Motors Corp. brand ahead of its longtime rival.

But an even bigger factor has been the sharp drop in Ford sales.

Ford's U.S. sales fell to 2.78 million last year from 3.47 million vehicles in 2000. That was the same year Firestone's recall of more than 6.5 million tires, most on the Ford Explorer, raised questions about the safety of the top-selling SUV.

Chevrolet's stronger sales are a rare bit of good news for GM.

The automaker announced plans last month to stop production at a dozen North American plants and cut 30,000 hourly jobs by the end of 2008. The company has lost nearly $5 billion in its North American automotive operations this year.

But Chevrolet's victory, if it passes Ford, may be short-lived. The Toyota brand is on pace for its 13th consecutive year of stronger sales, having sold 1.51 million vehicles this year excluding the Scion line of small cars.

Although Toyota is still far behind Chevrolet and Ford, the Japanese company is planting the seeds for continued growth.

That may be why Chevrolet officials publicly downplay the importance of being the No. 1-selling brand.

But at a conference in Las Vegas in October, Chevrolet officials handed out to dealers bracelets similar to the ones cyclist Lance Armstrong's foundation sells to promote cancer awareness.

Dealers said the bracelets were Chevy blue and emblazoned with the word "leadership."

"It is front and center in our minds," said Richard Genthe, owner of Dick Genthe Chevrolet in Southgate and the senior cochairman of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. "It's in our e-mails and in our video presentations. It's a full-court press."

Genthe admits that the race with Ford is still tight.

"You can tell it's going to be a dogfight right up to the end," he said Wednesday. But he expects dealers to push the brand to No. 1, with help from Chevrolet in the form of more spending on advertising and incentives, if necessary.

Victory in the sales race is more than just a chest-beating achievement. It helps convince car buyers that the brand is a winner.

"If they win, I'm sure there will be a full-court press on advertising," Scott Brasher, general manager of Brasher Chevrolet-Buick dealership in Weimar, Texas, said this week.

Although Chevrolet officials and dealers can be proud that they're close to beating Ford, they know another competitor is gaining fast.

About 100 miles from Brasher's dealership, Toyota is building a pickup plant outside San Antonio.

And while Ford and GM are making plans to cut production, Toyota broke ground in October on a second new plant, in Woodstock, Ontario.

By 2014, Toyota could be fighting it out with Ford and Chevrolet as the top U.S. brand, said Rebecca Lindland, an auto sales analyst for the research firm Global Insight of Lexington, Mass.

"The consumers that ... made Chevy and Ford what they were are basically out of the market in 10 years' time," Lindland said this week. "Baby boomers, they were the first group to come through with no loyalty to the domestic Big Three." But for now, Ford can find solace in having the nation's top-selling vehicle -- the F-Series pickup. And Chevrolet is attracting new buyers like Hallman.

"I had been a Ford man my whole life," he said, but when the lease on his Mountaineer expires in 13 months, he may consider another Chevrolet. "I'll be looking at a Chevy store as well as a Mercury store."

Contact MICHAEL ELLIS at 313-222-8784 or [email protected].
 
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