Ford, GM Take Hit in Compact Segments

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- Ford ( F)and GM ( GM) both reported disappointments in select small car segments on Tuesday, as Japanese automakers returned aggressively to the market.

But even though Detroit's two publicly held automakers reported overall sales declines, with Ford down 5% and GM down 8.2% as Toyota ( TM) gained 11.6%, investors did not seem overly perturbed. GM shares were rising 35 cents to $23.35 in mid-afternoon trading Tuesday, while Ford shares were flat at $11.27.

"There's no doubt the Japanese are back in the market," said Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. sales operations, on the GM sales call. "They have a high inventory and they're being aggressive in the fleet business."

Between March and April, Ford cut incentive spending by 9.9%, the second biggest drop in the industry, according to TrueCar.com. Nissan cut by 10.7%, while GM cut by 3.4%. Only Honda ( HMC) and Toyota boosted incentive spending, with Honda up 8% and Toyota up 4%, TrueCar said. Chrysler was down 6.1% while the industry average declined 4.7% to $2,446.

Among compacts, sales of the Chevrolet Cruze dropped 28% to 18,205, while sales of the Toyota Corolla gained 15%to 24,804.

Cruze was perhaps the single biggest beneficiary of production slumps by Japanese automakers following the March 8 earthquake and tsunami.

"The compact car segment is obviously a very competitive segment," said Alan Batey, Chevrolet vice president for sales, on the sales call. "What we have done from day one is to position Cruze from a value perspective (and) we are not being drawn into a discounted sales position." He noted that the average transaction price for Cruze is $19,572, while the average transaction price for a Corolla is $16,917.

Meanwhile, sales of the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic, which was not available in April 2011, totaled 6,387. At least in the early part of the month, Sonic was the top-selling subcompact, Batey said.

At Ford, the big loser was the subcompact Fiesta. Its sales fell by 44% to 5,135, while sales of the Toyota Yaris climbed 142% to 4,274. Meanwhile, sales of the compact Focus gained 12.5% to 19,425.

On the Ford sales call, Ken Czubay, vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said: "The comparison for last year is pretty tricky (because) we were just launching the Focus. (Now) consumers have a great choice between Fiesta and Focus, they're really choosing the Focus."

Ford analyst Erick Merkle noted that consumers normally prefer compacts over subcompacts by a margin of three or four to one. "Either delivers over 40 miles per gallon," he said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/tedreednc.

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