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What a difference a year makes.
A year or so ago, the U.S. auto industry was being left for dead -- General Motors and Chrysler were scrambling for government bailouts and heading for bankruptcy, and while Ford's (NYSE: F ) leadership serenely announced they could weather the storm without aid, very few actually believed them. It was Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) and Honda's (NYSE: HMC ) world to inherit, with maybe Volkswagen and a surging Hyundai helping themselves to larger slices of the pie.
And now? Now we see that the talked-about automotive darling isn't Toyota or Honda, or even Hyundai, but the suddenly mighty-looking Ford, whose sales were up a whopping 24% in January over last year. That's not a surprise if you've been paying attention, but this might be: GM reported a solid 15% increase.
GM's sales jump, like Ford's, was juiced to some extent by orders from fleets, but this still counts as a sign that the firm might finally be finding its way after a wrenching year. And Nissan, Volkswagen, and Hyundai reported solid sales gains as well.
So what, you say? Last January was an aberration? Gains at retailers like Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN ) , Target (NYSE: TGT ) , and Costco (Nasdaq: COST ) suggest that consumers are spending again, and everyone's sales should be up?
Not everyone has good news to report
Not so fast. Toyota, as you may have heard, is in a heap of trouble over "unintended acceleration" in a number of models. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood added fuel to an already raging PR fire when he said that he would personally call Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, adding "because I think after I talk to him, I think [Toyota] will get it. This is serious."
This story has been lingering for weeks, and it certainly didn't help Toyota's sales in January, which fell 16% to less than 100,000 -- the company's lowest monthly total since 1999. And a new shoe fell on Wednesday: The Japanese government went public with concerns about the brakes in Toyota's all-new Prius hybrid, ordering the company to investigate the issue.
Meanwhile, Honda saw a slight overall decline on slipping light truck sales, but still reported a hefty increase in net profits. Declines are never good news, but I don't think this is a big deal -- at least not yet.
And some things just haven't changed
While the past year has seen many changes, one thing hasn't changed all that much: Chrysler is still in deep trouble. With very little in the way of new product to show off on this season's auto show circuit, lingering quality concerns, and next to nothing in its near-term pipeline, Chrysler is fading rapidly from Americans' radar screens. Salvation is on its way, or at least Chrysler hopes -- but it will be at least a couple of years before new products of the company's partnership with Fiat are ready for sale.
The upcoming new Dodge Charger, Jeep Cherokee, and Chrysler 300 might help lift sales somewhat, and it seems likely that some Fiat, Lancia, and (less likely) Alfa Romeo models will be offered here, giving dealers some new products to sell while the company implements its long-term strategy. But mostly the company needs its dealers to hang on until the latest in a very long line of Chrysler renaissances can start to take hold. Can they?
I don't know, but one thing seems sure: The wrenching transformation of the U.S. auto landscape that started a couple of years ago still has a ways to go.