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US auto sales down, but optimism rising

But US automakers did better than expected while Japanese brands did worse.

A couple looks over a new car on the lot of Rose Chevrolet in Hamilton, Ohio. General Motors' sales fell by a third from a year ago but did better than last month, buoying hopes.

David Kohl/AP

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This says something about the low expectations surrounding Detroit: Chrysler reports sales down by nearly half from a year ago, GM's fall almost a third, Ford's drop a quarter -- and yet people are cheering.

"Battered auto sales show improvement," ran the headline from CNN Money.com.

"There’s no doubt; it’s progress,” Gary Dilts of J.D. Power & Associates told Bloomberg.

Those declines in May weren't as bad as analysts had expected and did represent a decided rise from awful numbers in April. So maybe one-month sales results are more important than the year-over-year results. Or maybe down is the new flat. Or maybe it's that Toyota and Honda did worse than Ford and GM.

In any case, part of the answer lies in the deep pessimism with which many Americans view the Big Three – and US manufacturing more generally. Outside of union and company circles, there's been little enthusiasm for the Obama administration's bailout of GM and the help it has afforded Chrysler.

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