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Earnings Preview: Chrysler 1Q earnings could fall

Tom Krisher, AP Auto Writer

DETROIT (AP) -- A string of surprising sales increases has helped Chrysler post profits in seven of the past eight quarters.

But even though sales kept rising in the first quarter, profit and revenue growth could slow compared with a year ago.

Chrysler's global and U.S. sales each were up nearly 8 percent last quarter, but the company didn't get as much money per vehicle as it did a year earlier, and that could cut into profits.

The mix of what customers are buying also is changing. Chrysler is selling more small cars, which aren't as profitable as trucks, SUVs and luxury cars. That also could mean a lower profit than last year's first quarter, which was the company's best since it left bankruptcy protection in 2009.

The Auburn Hills, Mich., company, now majority owned by Italian automaker Fiat SpA, reports first-quarter earnings on Monday morning.

Here's what to expect:

STRONG SALES: Chrysler sold more than 563,000 cars and truck worldwide from January through March. The figures are a good sign that the company made a net profit in the period. U.S. sales rose to 428,000.

The sales gains outpaced the U.S. auto market, which saw an increase of 6.4 percent for the quarter. But the sales growth has slowed — Chrysler consistently posted double-digit monthly gains in 2011 and 2012. For all of last year, Chrysler's sales rose almost 21 percent.

Seventy-five percent of Chrysler's business comes from the United States, and that's a good thing right now. Chrysler has little business in Europe, where auto sales fell 10 percent during the quarter. Losses in Europe are a drain on earnings for Chrysler's main competitors, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.

FALLING PRICES: Even though Chrysler's sales were up last quarter, the price per vehicle fell. The average Chrysler vehicle sold for just over $29,000 from January through March, down almost 2 percent from a year earlier. That's likely because Chrysler sold more Dodge Dart compacts and Fiat 500 mini-cars during the quarter, both lower-priced vehicles, said Tom Libby, lead North American analyst for the Polk automotive research firm.

The company also spent about 1 percent more on rebates, low-interest financing and other discounts, with the average incentive per vehicle rising to $3,277, according to the TrueCar.com auto pricing website. Libby said Chrysler needed incentives to sell its outdated midsize cars, the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger, which compete against newer models in the largest segment of the U.S. market.

Lower prices and higher incentives generally translate to lower profits for automakers. The big question is whether the sales increase — plus a big jump in high-profit pickup truck sales — will offset declining prices.

Chrysler likely made money selling Jeeps, including the popular and pricey Grand Cherokee. The Ram pickup, Chrysler's top-selling vehicle, also helped the bottom line. Sales rose 15 percent to almost 78,000 as truck sales surged nationwide. Chrylser also sells the Dodge, Fiat and Chrysler brands in the U.S.

"I see sort of a slowing down of the company, but a solidifying position in the country for those brands," Libby said, adding that it will be difficult for Chrysler to move above its current 11.6 percent U.S. market share because of stiff competition from other automakers.

WHY IT MATTERS: Chrysler employs 65,535 people worldwide, including 43,785 in the U.S.

LAST YEAR'S QUARTER: Chrysler earned $473 million on revenue of $16.4 billion.