Sales of North American-made cars and light trucks in late February fell 8.9 percent, the smallest decline yet this year and that stirred hope that a recovery may be in the wings.
"I think that we may have a spring in this industry after all," auto analyst David Healy of the investment bank Barclays de Zoete Wedd in New York said Tuesday.Vehicle sales usually pick up in March and April with warmer weather and thoughts of summertime road trips.
But this year, the industry is heading into the spring buying season with a recession that has clobbered new-vehicle sales for months.
There are some indications that the tough economic conditions that ruined last year's fourth quarter may be easing. Dealers have said showroom traffic is up, there are predictions that the end of the gulf war will boost sagging consumer confidence, and interest rates are falling.
No one, though, is predicting a quick end to the auto slump.
Car and truck sales for the first two months of the year, with imported vehicles included, were 20.9 percent behind the same time last year.
"We are quite encouraged by reports from our dealers that showroom traffic has been increasing for several weeks and that the end of hostilities is bringing people to the market who had postponed purchases due to the Persian Gulf uncertainties," said Ford Motor Co. sales vice president Robert Rewey.
"Underlying economic weakness, however, remains a concern that may moderate a near-term rebound," Rewey said.
"The recovery is not in view but I guess it's happening now," Healy said. "You can't see it in today's numbers. Probably later."
The nine major automakers reporting Feb. 21-28 sales figures Tuesday said they sold North American-built cars and light trucks at an average daily rate of 34,230 compared with an average rate of 36,343 during the same time last year.
Chrysler Corp. reports only monthly sales figures. An Associated Press estimate of its late-February domestic sales, based on the company's average monthly market share over the previous 12 months, showed Chrysler sales were down 25 percent.
In the five previous 10-day periods this year, domestic sales rates were down between 12.9 percent in mid-February and 36.3 percent in late January.
Ford's late-February domestic vehicle sales were up 3 percent because of strong car sales based on a dealer incentive program, according to company spokesman Joel Pitcoff.
General Motors Corp. said its late-February sales of North American-made vehicles were off 15 percent.
For all of February, including imported vehicles and Chrysler's monthly figures, combined car and truck sales declined 13.4 percent, with car sales off 13.2 percent and truck sales down 14 percent.
Sales of Big Three cars and trucks fell 14.7 percent during the month while sales of Japanese vehicles dropped a more modest 8.1 percent in February.
The decline in Japanese vehicle sales is an indication that the slump that began in October 1989 isn't going to end soon.
Honda Motor Co. Ltd., whose sales held up throughout last year while other companies' sales took a dive, reported a 21.3 percent decline in February sales this year compared with the same month last year.
Honda is using a former Army depot in Marion, Ohio, as a temporary storage point for more than 2,000 of its Accord cars, the best-selling car in the United States for the past two years.
Honda spokesman Jeff Leestma said the arrangement is temporary.