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The big news this week in the auto business? Sales numbers.
The first few business days of every month are filled with sales reports from all of the major automakers, both in the U.S. and in markets around the world.
The good news for many is that sales are up in the world's two biggest auto markets -- that would be China and the U.S. -- and that means second-quarter profits are likely to be good ones.
But what else went on in autos this week? Let's take a closer look.
There are two good stories for Ford here, starting with a big one: pickup trucks. Pickup sales are booming, thanks to increased consumer confidence and upticks in the construction and energy sectors. That is especially good news for Ford, because Ford's F-Series is the segment leader. Sales of the F-Series line were up 24%, the lineup's best June result since 2006.
The second good story? Fuel-efficient cars. Traditionally a weak point for the Detroit automakers, the revamped Ford lineup includes strong entries in nearly all segments. Ford's small Fiesta had a huge month, as did the compact Escape SUV and Ford's hybrids, and Ford literally can't make enough of its hot Fusion sedans to meet demand. That problem will be addressed when a second assembly line for the Fusion starts up this fall, something that should lead to another jump in sales for the striking midsized entry.
Ford also posted strong results in China, where sales are up a whopping 47% so far this year, and in India, where a new small SUV called the EcoSport has generated a big burst of consumer interest.
Get ready to hear a whole lot about pickup trucks
Speaking of pickup trucks, General Motors (NYSE: GM ) this week kicked off its most important new-product launch campaign in years, with a 60-second TV ad that made its debut in Texas on the 4th of July. (How's that for patriotic?) This is just the beginning of what looks to be a massive marketing push for GM's all-new full-sized pickups, its first new big pickups since before the company's 2009 bankruptcy.
It's not an exaggeration to say that the new Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra are GM's most important products, and all signs suggest that the brand-new entries are set to be strong contenders. Meanwhile, GM's old pickups are still selling strong: Silverado sales were up a big 29% last month, as that boom in pickup demand has enabled GM to sell down its remaining stock without heavy discounts.
The all-new 2014 pickups are just now beginning to arrive at dealers, and will be gradually replacing the last of the old models over the next few months. Meanwhile, GM also reported solid sales in China, where it's the market-share leader -- and where its new small SUVs are finding lots of happy buyers.
Will these be Tesla's biggest rivals?
GM and Honda (NYSE: HMC ) made big news this week with an announcement that they're teaming up to develop a mass-market fuel-cell system for future cars. The system, which is expected to debut in about 2020, chemically "burns" hydrogen to generate electricity without toxic emissions.
That electricity can then be used to power an electric motor: In other words, these will be electric cars, only without the batteries. GM and Honda also pledged to work on storage technologies for all that hydrogen, as well as on infrastructure -- places to "get gas" for your future hydrogen-powered ride.
This doesn't mean that the world is giving up on battery-powered electrics, of course. Batteries remain heavy and expensive, and take a while to recharge, but Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA ) has recently made it very clear that a great car can be built around a big heavy battery pack, despite the trade-offs.
But the GM-Honda link-up, along with Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) recent confirmation that it would launch a fuel-cell car next year (a car that seems likely to be aimed directly at the Model S, by the way), is a good reminder that battery-electrics aren't necessarily the way forward, just one of several possible ways.
That's something that investors in any car company, including Tesla, should keep in mind.
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