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MotorWorld by Alex Taylor III Column archive

Automotive winners and losers for 2007

As car sales slump, the weak get weaker but the strong continue to thrive, says Fortune's Alex Taylor.

By Alex Taylor III, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- With the 2008 model year now upon us, its a good time to look back at the first nine months of calendar 2007 to see who the champs and chumps are. The names may not surprise you but the amount of movement might.

The auto industry as a whole has been disappointing, with sales in the U.S. down 4.5% through September. The subprime mortgage collapse gets most of the blame. If you are worried about seeing your house foreclosed, you probably aren't going to be out shopping for a new car. Others, who used their homes like ATMs, are finding refinancing difficult to impossible. Auto sales have been particularly weak in California and Florida, two of the hardest-hit housing markets.

Among the ten major manufacturers, only four have lost ground this year -- the Detroit Three and Volkswagen. No surprises there. Ford is the big loser as it undergoes a wrenching restructuring at the hands of a novice CEO. Its sales are down 13.3% so far this year. New marketing boss Jim Farley, recruited from Toyota (Charts) on Thursday, has a lot of work to do.

On the upside, the import brands were big winners, with BMW leading the way, followed by Nissan (Charts). Shorn of Chrysler, Mercedes is showing a little strength, too, with sales up 1.8%.

High-impact new models moved the needle significantly for a couple of makes that had been languishing. Lincoln's sales have risen 14.5% this year and it is closing the gap with its moderately-priced dealer mate Mercury. Expect to see Mercury to go the way of Plymouth and Oldsmobile in a few years. Saturn, which has been totally revamped by the injection of Opel models to its lineup, is up 11.7%, though that is probably less than the folks at General Motors (Charts, Fortune 500) would like.

A shortage of dealer traffic has plunged several other brands deep into the loss column. Jaguar, still suffering from a series of disastrous product and design errors, has seen its sales plummet 27.2% this year. At Buick, meanwhile, even the arrival of the acclaimed Enclave crossover vehicle hasn't been enough to keep sales of this one-time doctors favorite from falling 24.7%.

Digging deeper into the data, truck sales continue to outpace car sales despite the seeming permanence of $3 gasoline. Car sales are down 4.5% versus a decline of only 1.4% for trucks. Much of that is due to the soaring popularity of crossover vehicles, which are counted as trucks even though they are engineered like cars. But Honda's CR-V, a crossover, now outsells the Ford Explorer, a traditional truck-based SUV.

At the model level, the plight of the Detroit Three is vivid. In September, as Automotive News points out, only nine of its 41 nameplates saw sales go up in September. The good news is that two recently redesigned models, the Cadillac CTS and the Chrysler Sebring are selling strongly.

Less encouraging has been the response to the old Ford 500 that was renamed Taurus earlier this year. The move was supposed to boost buyer recognition of the vehicle but Ford (Charts, Fortune 500) has sold about half as many cars under the new name as it did under the old one.

What do the early returns from the 2008 model year portend? Nothing very encouraging. With sales headed below 16 million units for the first time in eight years in calendar 2007, there are predictions they could fall even further next year.

Analysts at UBS see "a growing risk that U.S. volumes will tumble further given the problems in housing and the difficulty faced by many consumers in accessing credit." It is using a 10% cut to forecast U.S. volumes for each manufacturer.

Still, several high-volume cars have been totally reengineered for 2008 and could create some showroom excitement. Reviewers have swooned over the new Honda (Charts) Accord, which provides a remarkable combination of comfort, agility, and fuel economy. The V-6 version is rated at 29 miles to the gallon on the highway.

Emerging in November will be the all-new Chevrolet Malibu, another popular-priced sedan on which GM is placing its hopes for a turnaround in consumer sentiment. Given the way preferences have been trending for the past decade, though, GM will be fortunate just to arrest its decline in market share, much less begin to reclaim any that it has lost to its import rivals. Top of page