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Automakers predict sales rebound in the US

Monthly US auto sales fell in September for the first time in more than two years. Toyota saw its sales drop 4 percent.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

DETROIT — Automakers expect little impact from the federal government shutdown, and they predict a fourth-quarter rebound after a rare sales decline in September.

Auto sales dropped 4 percent from a year ago to just over 1.1 million, mainly due to a calendar quirk that pulled Labor Day weekend transactions into August’s numbers. The drop ended a 27-month streak of gains for the industry.

General Motors, Honda, and Volkswagen reported double-digit declines for last month. Toyota, Nissan, and Hyundai posted smaller decreases. Only Ford and Chrysler had gains among the bigger automakers.

GM’s 11 percent drop was its first since July of last year. It allowed Ford to get within 2,049 vehicles of unseating GM as the top US automaker for the first time since May of 2011.

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Most industry officials viewed September as an anomaly. They also downplayed the impact of the government shutdown, assuming it is short.

Kurt McNeil, GM’s US sales chief, said the fundamentals are still in place for GM and the industry to rebound.

“As long as the underlying economic factors are supporting the business, which we believe they will through the end of this year and into 2014, we’ll get through this turbulence,” said Ken Czubay, Ford’s US sales manager.

Jim Lentz, Toyota’s North American chief executive, said that people have grown used to dysfunction in Washington.

Earlier this year, when the government failed to avoid automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, there were predictions that the economy would melt down, Lentz said.

“They were told that when you wake up tomorrow, the earth is going to stop spinning,” Lentz said. “For the most part the earth didn’t stop. And I think that’s how they view this.”

The shutdown will only affect sales if it causes credit markets to tighten, Lentz said.

There was concern among executives and analysts that a long shutdown — and a looming confrontation over raising the government’s debt ceiling — could cause sales to fall. McNeil said anything over two weeks could cut consumer confidence.

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“Consumers don’t like to make big-ticket item purchases when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the economy,” said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for the TrueCar.com auto pricing site.

One reason GM’s sales fell last month was a reversal in pickup trucks, which have been hot sellers. Sales of GM’s full-sized pickups, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, fell 8 percent though the company is selling redesigned trucks.

Some versions were slow to reach showrooms. At the same time, Ford’s F-Series pickup, the top-selling vehicle in the nation, posted nearly a 10 percent increase, and sales of Chrysler’s Ram truck rose 8 percent.

Ford and Chrysler offered more than $4,000 in discounts as they sold down 2013 models, according to the Edmunds.com auto site. But GM reduced its incentive spending almost 30 percent compared with last year, to about $3,900.

GM announced increased discounts starting Tuesday, including up to $4,500 cash on a 2013 Silverado.

Pickup trucks are traditionally the top-selling vehicles in the United States, and they are key to profits. Companies make around $10,000 per truck.

McNeil said GM’s sales should return to normal levels for the rest of the year. Through September, sales are up almost 8 percent from a year ago.

At Honda, sales dropped 10 percent as two popular models, the Accord and the CR-V small crossover SUV, posted declines. Sales of the midsize Accord, which were hot all year, fell nearly 14 percent, while CR-V sales were off almost 4 percent.

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Other automakers reporting sales included:

■  Ford Motor Co., which bucked the industry trend with a 6 percent sales increase. Ford was led by sales of its Fusion midsize sedan, which jumped 62 percent over last September.

■  Chrysler Group had a 1 percent increase, aided by the Ram and the ever-popular Jeep Grand Cherokee with sales up 19 percent.

■  Toyota Motor Corp., which posted a 4 percent drop. Sales of the Camry, the top-selling car in the United States, fell 7 percent, but the redesigned Corolla saw a 1 percent increase.