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  Do You Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is?

Foreign Cars Pass Big 3

For the 1st time, U.S. drivers buy more import brands

Based on a Report from The Detroit News

For the first time, U.S. consumers are buying more cars and trucks built by foreign automakers than vehicles made by Detroit's traditional Big Three.

New statistics compiled by R.L. Polk and Co., which counts new car registrations and excludes sales to rental car agencies and other fleet customers, show foreign brands commanded 52.9 percent of the retail auto market in the first five months of 2006, while domestic automakers fell to 47.1 percent.

Domestic brands led foreign makes 51 percent to 49 percent over the same period last year.

While the power shift has been long in the making, it's nonetheless a disheartening sign that Detroit's auto industry is losing the battle for the hearts and wallets of American car buyers.

Domestic brands such as Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge still control more than half the U.S. market when fleet sales are included, but more profitable retail sales are considered the best indicator of which auto brands are most popular with customers.

"I'm not surprised," said Christian Wardlaw, senior analyst with Autobytel.com, a car shopping Web site. "The proof is sitting there in black and white on paper. People can't refute it anymore."

About 2.55 million new domestic-brand cars and trucks were registered in the first five months of this year versus 2.86 million foreign nameplates in the same period, Polk reported. The foreign nameplates figure includes some brands such as Ford-owned Land Rover and Jaguar that are controlled by the Big Three.

Chrysler Group spokesman Kevin McCormick said the Auburn Hills-based company doesn't get caught up in the industry scorekeeping, saying the automaker is "focusing on things we can control in our business. Our strategy at a high level is to put out the best cars and trucks that we can at prices that are attractive to consumers."

But industry experts say the numbers illustrate that Asian automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co and Nissan Motor Co. are doing a better job meeting the needs of U.S. car buyers.

Domestic brands have been hurt by lower quality scores, and more recently, a heavy reliance on large trucks and SUVs at a time of a high gas prices.

"People have been swapping SUVs for fuel-efficient cars, and the domestics' car lineup hasn't been as compelling as the Asians'," Wardlaw said.

Amenities factor in

Import brands are leveraging strong profits to turn out cars packed with safety features, creature comforts and the latest technology, said Phil Reed, consumer advice editor of auto research site Edmunds.com.

"With American cars, you say 'This is nice and this is nice but why couldn't they have done this?"' he said.

The Ford Escape Hybrid, for example, has an optional navigation system, but the screen that displays maps and approaching roads is too small, Reed said. In addition, a disc has to be inserted to operate the system, but there is no additional slot to play music CDs meaning the driver has to choose between listening to tunes and navigating streets.

With the availability of the Internet, buyers have become savvy about how to compare the optional versus standard features they can get for their money and can more easily calculate a vehicle's resale value.

Vehicles made by Toyota, Honda and other top foreign makes generally hold their value better than American brand cars and trucks, which are often heavily discounted.

"Toyota has a 10- to 15-year outlook on where the industry is heading," said James Bryant, automotive industry editor for Hoover's Inc., an online business resource site. "GM and Ford tend to play along with whatever happens to be the flavor of the week.
"Everybody knew that $3 gas was going to come eventually," he added. "We just didn't want to admit it."

And foreign automakers have done a better job capturing the emerging crossover SUV segment with vehicles like the Nissan Murano and U.S. automakers are racing to catch up with offerings like the upcoming Ford Edge.

Toyota registrations rise

Toyota's U.S. brands posted a 12.5 percent increase in retail sales in the first five months of the year. By contrast, GM's retail sales slipped 7.7 percent. Excluding fleet sales, Toyota brands now outsell Ford and Chrysler nameplates in the United States, Polk reported.

Wardlaw said competing carmakers aren't only leading in important segments but getting new products to the market at a faster pace.

The product life cycle for an Asian nameplate is about four to six years compared to six to eight years for a new domestic car or truck.

Wardlaw points out, for example, that the Ford Focus was merely refreshed for the U.S. market while the Focus sold in Europe was completely redesigned.

"What Americans got was a rehashed version of the old Focus and as a result, Ford isn't in a position to compete" against popular small vehicles such as the Honda Civic in the U.S. market at a time when gas prices are pushing consumers to cars.

In a separate study conducted by Autobytel.com Monday, online purchase requests for large trucks such the Ford F-150 pickup fell 34 percent, and 43 percent for the Toyota Tundra and Chevrolet Silverado for the second quarter. In comparison, more fuel-efficient cars like the Toyota Camry and Yaris, and the Honda Civic posted gains.

"The trick for the domestic automakers is going to be that they need to spread development dollars across every development segment in which they want to compete, and that includes cars and trucks," Wardlaw said.

Copyright © 2006 The Detroit News

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