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CHEVY vs. FORD

Ford Motor Co. told dealers at a weekend conference that new data shows the Ford brand outsold the Chevrolet brand in 2005, contradicting General Motors Corp.'s claim that Chevy came out on top.

Ford said it will ask GM to stop referring to Chevrolet as the nation's No. 1 brand in its ads, but GM said it's standing by its numbers.

Full-year sales results released by both GM and Ford last month showed Chevrolet was the best-selling brand in 2005 with about 2.6-million vehicles sold, about 21,100 more than Ford.

But Ford spokesman Jim Cain said Sunday that new data from R.L. Polk & Co. shows Ford beat Chevrolet by 5,000 in the number of new vehicle registrations. R.L. Polk of Southfield, Mich., collects and interprets automotive data.

Cain said Ford planned to contact GM. He said Ford has no plans to run similar ads, saying the company is thinking beyond competing with GM. If the new numbers hold, Ford can claim to be the best-selling brand in the nation for 18 consecutive years.

Registration numbers may not match sales, because a vehicle could be sold in one year and registered to an owner the next, GM spokesman Jeff Kuhlman said. He said sales figures - not registrations - give a more accurate picture.

"I know 100 percent that our numbers are accurate," Kuhlman said.

The spat showed the intense competition dealers are facing in a market that is growing increasingly crowded. Last week, Ford Americas president Mark Fields said there will be 300 nameplates in the U.S. market by the end of the decade, up from 215 in 2002.

Ford released the numbers at a meeting with hundreds of dealers in Orlando at the National Automobile Dealers Association's annual convention. Both Ford and General Motors Corp. sought to reassure dealers that their businesses are on the right track despite billion-dollar losses and continued declines in U.S. market share last year.

Tom Addis, a Ford, Lincoln and Mercury dealer from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and the head of Ford's dealer council, said dealers are pleased with Ford's new plan to give them more warning of marketing efforts and promotions so they can order vehicles accordingly. Addis said dealers used to find out about ads right before they ran, but starting this year, they will know Ford's plans at least one quarter in advance.

Fields and Rick Wagoner, GM's chairman and chief executive officer, reviewed the automakers' restructuring efforts in their dealer meetings, which were closed to the public and media. The companies plan to cut a combined 60,000 jobs and close more than a dozen facilities each over the next few years to restore profitability to their North American divisions.

GM dealers said the meeting showed dealers favor the company's decision to lower overall prices and rely less on costly incentives. GM announced the new pricing last month.

Dave Westcott, who sells Buick, Pontiac, GMC, Isuzu and Suzuki vehicles in Burlington, N.C., said customers are hesitant to buy because they're so conditioned to incentives, but he thinks the effort will benefit the automaker in the long run.

Dealers also said they were reassured by Wagoner's comments.

"They have a consistent message and they're staying on course," said Patrick Campbell, a dealer from Baton Rouge, La., who sells seven of GM's eight brands. Campbell said his operations are profitable, but he's getting squeezed by the cost of utilities.

16.8-MILLION

U.S. auto sales forecast for 2006, down from more than 16.9-million last year.

26.2

Number of months' salary it takes to finance a vehicle, on the rise because of interest rate hikes. It was 26.2 months by the third quarter of 2005, up from about 20 in 2002.

$28,000

Average transaction price for a new vehicle in 2006.

$14,840

Average price for a used vehicle.

1.5 percent

Increase in number of licensed drivers in 2006 as the largest generation since the baby boomers continues to reach driving age.

Source: Paul Taylor, chief economist, National Automobile Dealers Association.

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