LAS VEGAS – In past years, when retail auto sales went soft, auto makers upped their rental-fleet deliveries to compensate for the losses.

Some industry experts predict that may be the case this year in the face of a current sales slump.

Perhaps, but not at General Motors Corp., vows Brian McVeigh, general manager-GM Fleet and Commercial Operations.

“We will not ramp up rental sales,” he tells Ward’s at a product preview here for top fleet customers and dealers. “There’s been absolutely no talk of that. Never boost numbers just to boost numbers.”

In 2006 and 2007, GM cut its rental-fleet sales by about 180,000 vehicles. Last year, it delivered 550,000 units, which McVeigh says makes for a “proper equilibrium.”

An auto maker’s well-balanced rental program relies on a model mix that is in sync with retail-market demands. Otherwise, problems occur.

Most rental units eventually return to auto makers for remarketing. Rental models with slow-selling retail counterparts become burdens, affecting both front-end new-car pricing and back-end used-car residuals.

“An unpopular car in a (rental) fleet is not going to be a popular car when it is time to remarket it,” says Tom Kontos, a vice president at Adesa Analytical Services.

Kontos says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if rental-fleet sales nudge up on a “selective” basis this year because of soft retail sales. Last year, U.S. light-vehicle sales totaled 16.1 million. They are expected to be hundreds of thousands of units below that this year.

“There are good rental sales and not-good rental sales,” Kontos says. “You are OK as long as you are not diluting the brand by overselling to the rental fleets. Manufacturers have learned how to do that.”

One effect of fleet reductions is that today’s rental cars have higher mileage, says Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

“Have you seen odometers on rental cars?” he says. “Some are at 30,000 miles (48,280 km). You never used to see that.”

Streamlining rental-fleet sales has helped auto makers’ bottom lines. “Fleet rental always has been profitable, but now it is more profitable,” McVeigh says.

Nevertheless, some cynics look down at rental sales, seeing them as close to giving vehicles away. That type of thinking confounds McVeigh.

Putting palms to temples in a mock dramatic gesture, he says: “I go nuts trying to explain rental stuff to some people. Show me a business school textbook that says if someone is buying 100,000 vehicles from you, he shouldn’t get a better per-unit price than if he bought just one.

“We’re talking about good, loyal customers,” he adds. “Some of the rental-car companies have been with us for 50 years.”

While auto makers have been capping rental-fleet sales to avoid glutting the market, there are no such restrictions on commercial-fleet sales, which are for keeps.

Vehicles on that side of the business range from white trucks for tradesmen to pink Cadillacs for Mary Kay beauty-product saleswomen.

The ideal fleet vehicle is economical to buy and operate; has a predictable residual value; fulfills requirements for driver safety, comfort and cargo capacity; and meets reduced-emissions goals, says Tom Webb, chief economist for Manheim Consulting.

Fleet managers struggle to achieve a balance among those sometimes-conflicting objectives, he says.

GM delivered a total of 1.28 million commercial-fleet units in 2007. The auto maker expects deliveries to drop this year, while still retaining the same market share of 25.9%, McVeigh says.

The drop reflects a sluggish economy that has hurt overall vehicle sales.

“Fleet sales have been dismal lately,” says Scott Savage, fleet manager at Findlay Chevrolet in Las Vegas, where home construction has slowed and median-housing prices have dropped 22.7% compared with a year ago.

“Two years ago, you could sit at your desk and sell a lot of vehicles, but not any more,” says Savage, an attendee of the GM fleet preview.

Also attending is Brian Ferrar, who is a bit better off as fleet manager at Shepard Chevrolet in Lake Bluff, IL, north of Chicago.

“Fleet sales have been OK for us,” he says. “Not great, but OK. Retail sales have been hurting, though.”

Competition for fleet business is tough among same-brand dealers.

Of the five Chevrolet dealers in Las Vegas, four have designated commercial-fleet operations. That’s a lot, because despite its phenomenal growth, “Las Vegas in many respects still is a small town,” Savage says.

In the metro Chicago area covering parts of three states, GM has cut out 14 Chevrolet dealerships. Yet, there are still 130 Chevy stores in that market, Ferrar notes.

Besides highlighting product lineups, GM’s fleet event here tries to show customers the auto maker is back in shape after some tough times.

In a celebrity appearance, Howie Long, a National Football League hall of famer and a Chevrolet TV pitchman, makes the usual sports-to-business teamwork analogies.

But the ex-defenseman for the Oakland Raiders also speaks about how nice guys off the football field need to be “predators” on it.

That characterization seems to set an aggressive mood as GM marketers take turns addressing the audience.

“I’m trying to kick Toyota’s tail every day, and Ford’s and everyone else’s,” says Chevrolet General Manager Ed Peper.

The Chevrolet Cobalt compact will deliver a “knockout punch” to the Toyota Corolla, and the new Chevy Traverse cross/utility vehicle will “crush” the competition, including the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, he says.

Meanwhile, Buick-Pontiac-GMC General Manager Jim Bunnell says Toyota Motors Sales U.S.A. Inc. had high expectations for the redesigned ’08 Toyota Tundra pickup truck.

Instead, the GMC Sierra and its Chevy Silverado cousin “crushed” the Tundra on the sales front, Bunnell says. “Let them bring on new trucks. We’ll continue to crush them.”

GM, which has experienced something of a product renaissance of late, has its groove back, McVeigh says.

“We’re not going to have any more Azteks,” he says, referring to an ill-fated Pontiac reviled as one of the oddest-looking products to come off an auto assembly line.

“It all adds up” is the tagline to GM’s fleet preview, where McVeigh tells the audience, “I love your business and appreciate you for every vehicle you order.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com