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IRVINE, Calif. — Though new-vehicle sales in the realigned auto industry may stay in the 11 million range for the foreseeable future until a few key economic indicators improve, there exists a certain optimism for Big 3 automakers, in particular, during the recent "slightly rising tide" in auto sales, according to James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book's Kbb.com.

"While nobody in this industry expected the times of 17 million-plus new-vehicle sales to be sustainable, there was no way to expect they would rapidly drop around 40 percent — and stay there," he commented.

"The factors contributing to this realignment are still with us in the form of limited availability to credit, fuel prices that keep teasing the $3 line and households that continue to work on reducing overall debt," Bell continued.

He added that an annual U.S new-vehicle sales total of roughly 11 million units is the most likely scenario until these pivotal issues approach a solution.

However, with "all things considered," that is still a better annual sales rate than the 10-million mark seen recently, Bell emphasized.

"Certain manufacturers are poised to take advantage of this slightly rising tide while others must be wondering "why me?" he continued. 

"While Ford continues to rake in accolades and positive press, the large mortgage they took back in 2007 to fund this product renaissance now is demanding large interest payments," Bell added. "If their growing sales follow the overall slight market uptick, those payments should be easier to make." 

In February, the automaker saw its new-vehicle sales climb more than 43 percent year-over-year during February. 

Over at General Motors, meanwhile, the automaker can take advantage of being "well-placed" in terms of product and can also benefit from its debt reductions through its bankruptcy process of 2009 and cutting Pontiac and Saturn.

This past month, sales for GM's four core brands were up 32 percent from February 2009.

"General Motors also is well-placed from a product perspective, but has the double advantage of cleaning out much dark and dusty debt during last year's managed bankruptcy process, as well as brands such as Pontiac and Saturn that were becoming expensive deadweight," Bell shared.

"General Motors is so well-poised that they may well roar past Ford in the very near future, even though they appear to be convinced of the damage that is done to their resale values by overproducing in an effort to show big volume," he continued.

Interestingly enough, Ford sold more vehicles than GM — a rather uncommon feat — during February. Specifically, it moved 142,285 units in the U.S. (including Volvo sales) compared to GM's 141,951 units (Its four core brands sold 138,849 vehicles)  

This hasn't happened since August 1998, according to multiple sources. At that time, GM was mired in a strike.

"A month in which Ford Motor Co. outsells General Motors Corp. is a very rare month indeed, at least in the last 80 years," commented Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for KBB and Kbb.com.

"And a month in which it occurs when GM is not in the throes of a strike is even more rare. The February results demonstrate that not only are the recent Ford product offerings being well-received, but also that GM is still suffering from post-bankruptcy syndrome," he continued.

"A percentage of the American buying public has been turned off by GM's bailout, plus GM is now operating with fewer brands and fewer dealers than it did one year before, which is not going to help short-run sales comparisons," Nerad continued. "The fact that Ford is a major beneficiary of Toyota's safety recall troubles is another factor in this complex mix." 

Moving on, Bell also took a look at Chrysler — whose February sales were up marginally from a year ago — and suggested that it and Fiat are "privately hoping" for a continue rise in fuel costs as they prepare to unleash 14 new models over the next three years.

"Why higher fuel prices, you may ask?  Well, Fiat is known in Europe as a master of fuel-efficient yet fun-to-drive and fun-to-be-seen-in smaller cars," Bell explained.

Continuing on, Bell offered a bit of context to this optimism. In the past, he explained, the strength of Toyota — and Honda, to a certain extent — would have toned down such a bright outlook among the Big 3.

"But Toyota's recent recall struggles have cracked the perception gap seal, and with great new products from the Big 3 as well as Hyundai, Kia, Subaru and others, the U.S. market ‘deck of cards' as been inexorably reshuffled," he added.

Greater Impact of Toyota Troubles, Winter Weather on Industry

Despite the increase in February sales among the Big 3, Toyota's troubles are likely to soften any upward movement in the industry's annual sales rate.

"Sales in February will no doubt prove that when a big player like Toyota sneezes, the industry as a whole will catch a cold," commented Nerad.

"Even substantial increases by other top players in the industry, like General Motors and Ford, are unlikely to boost the seasonally adjusted sales rate, a key indicator of the industry's momentum," he added. "Some consumers, especially Toyota loyalists, are simply waiting out the market right now."

However, other elements — environmental rather than economic — proved to dampen February sales, too,  Nerad argued, noting that "there was more to February's story than the Toyota headlines." 

"Record snow in the Mid-Atlantic states paralyzed sales in those regions for several days during the month, demonstrating that acts of God can also have their effects on what is proving to be a very fragile recovery," he continued.

Brett Hoselton, a senior automotive analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets, said Tuesday, however, that the seasonally adjusted annualized sales rate appears to be "OK," even in the midst of extreme wintry weather in many parts of the U.S. and the aftermath of the Toyota recalls.

Specifically, the light-vehicle SAAR is shaping up to be around 10 million units. This is down from 10.8 million a month ago and up from 9.1 million in February 2009.

"Expectations had been gradually reduced as February progressed, given severe weather in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast and the media bombardment of Toyota," Hoselton pointed out. "We are particularly encouraged that sales data supports weather-related disruptions, as GM saw a distinct difference in sales between the West Coast and Southern regions versus Northern regions."

He suggested that the "worst of the Toyota recalls" might be over, and expects the automaker to introduce incentive programs this month, which are likely to lift sales.

"In total, we believe that sales in both January and February were much better than they could have been given weather-related issues, Toyota recalls, and seasonally weak demand, which, along with fewer selling days, creates some noise in the SAAR," he added. "We continue to expect the overall trend in sales to move gradually higher throughout 2010 and into 2011."