Automakers Ford Motor (NYSE:F) and General Motors (NYSE:GM) reported October's U.S. sales Monday and the disappointing results suggest that Detroit's titans may be in for a long winter.

Over the summer, automakers mounted a sales blitz with powerful incentives, including 0% financing as well as rebates and reduced prices. The incentives crushed profit margins, but consumers rushed out in droves to snap up new vehicles.

Now the buying cycle appears to have run its course. While prices for 2004 models are somewhat higher than for 2003 vehicles, Ford and GM still have very low financing in place (as low as 0% APR under 36-month plans and 1.9% APR on 48-month deals). But it looks like buyers have had their fill and are turning in for a long winter's nap. GM's October sales dropped 7% and Ford's sales slipped 2%. Detroit's other domestic competitor, DaimlerChrysler AG's (NYSE:DCX) Chrysler unit bucked the trend, reporting that October's U.S. sales rose 11%, but its comparison was helped by a weak showing last year.

Ford and GM put a positive spin on their numbers, blaming "overhang" from robust summer sales for the declines and pointing to the strengthening economy as a driver. But given the frenetic summer sales and the sales decline under still-low financing rates, it's not hard to imagine the "overhang" might turn into a longer-term hangover.

Still, some automakers may be better positioned than others. As the latest Bush tax cuts kick in, consumers on the higher end of the pay scale will have more disposable income. And if the stock market continues its positive run, these same consumers will be feeling wealthier. These folks are the most likely car buyers in the near term, and their preferences are for higher-end (and higher-margin) models.

Hints of this trend emerged in October's reports. Sales of GM's Saab models, long popular with the upwardly mobile, rose 82%. DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes Benz unit set a new sales record for the month. DaimlerChrysler is the strongest in the luxury category, as Mercedes remains a widely recognized status symbol. Nonetheless, the Chrysler unit will probably continue to be a drag on the company. Which may make Ford the safest bet for investors looking to rev up their returns in the auto industry: Its Volvo (up 29%), Jaguar, and Land Rover brands continue to outpace the competition.

Brian Gorman lets no evil escape his sight in Chicago. Feel free to contact him at