The Car Allowance Rebate System, designed to take older, less fuel-efficient cars off the road by offering customers rebates up to $4,500 for new, more fuel-efficient vehicles, was a huge boost to auto sales.

The federal program ran from July 24 through Aug. 24. Many of the $3-billion program’s customers — 1.26 million consumers purchased 1.3 million new cars and light trucks — bought their vehicles in August.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Toyota was CARS’ biggest winner, holding 19.2 percent of the market share from Cash for Clunkers, and its Corolla was the top-selling vehicle.

However, the foreign automaker wasn’t CARS’ only star.

During August, Ford Motor Co. had the best showing of America’s automakers. Ford posted a sales’ gain of 17.2 percent from this time last year. In August 2008, Ford sold 155,117 cars and light trucks compared to 181,826 vehicles last month.

The Ford Focus compact and Escape crossover were listed among the top 10 Cash for Clunkers selections. No other U.S. automakers’ vehicle ranked in the top 10.

During August, Focus sales increased 56 percent and Escape’s 49 percent compared to the same time last year.

Ford’s success doesn’t surprise local dealers.

“Cash for Clunkers was incredible for us,” said Mike Kebrdle, Kokomo Auto World’s general sales manager. “We are just getting our inventory back up. It put a lot of people back to work, and working overtime to do what they needed to do, getting cars on our lots.

“But I have to say three to four months before Clunkers, sales had been good. We [Ford] have been making some great products the past couple of years. We are putting a good product out there and a good product keeps people coming here. I see a very good outlook for the future.”

With consumers looking for vehicles with high fuel efficiency, Ford had what they were seeking, said Rick Hasty, a salesman at Brad Howell Ford in Greentown.

Hasty said the Ford Focus has a base price of $16,180 and gets 33 miles per gallon on the highway. The Escape has a base price of $21,000 and gets 28 highway miles per gallon.

“They were big winners for us. These are the vehicles people were looking for and the vehicles Cash for Clunkers was designed for,” said Hasty. “I think there are a lot of factors for Ford’s success. It starts with the leadership, and our leaders’ vision to see what was coming and have a plan in place before the economy got bad during this economic downturn.

“Ford has had good products overseas and now they are bringing it to America. Ford’s products have been popular in Europe and they are produced over here.”

Although General Motors Co. was behind Toyota in CARS sales — GM had 17 percent of the market — its total August sales were down 20.1 percent.

Earlier this week, the automaker readjusted its 2010 industry forecast by lowering its output estimate. GM plans to sell between 11.5 to 12 million vehicles in 2010. The initial estimate was 12.5 million vehicles.

GM had 379,000 vehicles in inventory at the end of August, down 49 percent from 2008. According to its Web site, GM is extending its test program of selling vehicles on eBay through the end of the month.

Besides the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, sales of which increased by 62 percent in August, Chrysler Group LLC didn’t fair much better in August.

Among other major automotive manufacturers, only Kia, Hyundai and Nissan had a smaller, Clunker market share than Chrysler’s 8.3 percent.

That market share included Chrysler doubling the government’s $4,500 rebate, escalating it to $9,000.

Furthermore, Chrysler’s August sales were down 15.4 percent from last year and August’s sales were 5 percent better compared to July’s sales.

Low sales can be attributed to Chrysler shuttering plants and its bankruptcy.

“Our factories are full steam ahead building Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles for customers and replenishing dealer inventories,” Peter Fong, Chrysler’s brand president, CEO and lead executive for sales, said in a statement.

During CARS, nearly 200 local Chrysler employees returned to Kokomo’s factories to keep up with the increased demand.

While that was good to get workers back in the factories, it didn’t translate into additional cars on dealers’ lots.

As a result, Chrysler is boosting production by 50,000 vehicle through December.

“We have to produce cars. There was nothing wrong. We ran out of inventory. That’s why our [CARS] percentage wasn’t as high,” said Aaron Arriaga, Button Chrysler Dodge’s new car sales manager.

“We were down for two months. We are picking up [sales]. We need to keep the assembly lines going. We are selling incoming inventory and that’s good for us.”

• K.O. Jackson is the Tribune’s business writer. He can be reached at (765) 854-6739 or via e-mail

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