Thailand saw sales of its cash-cow 1-ton pickup slide this year, as the price of crude oil hovered at an all-time high for much of the summer.

Light-truck sales initially rose 3.6% in the first three months to 108,752 units but slid 15.3% in June – bad news for major auto makers such as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., which have operations there.

Although oil prices retreated in August, overall sales in September fell 10.4% to 49,483 units, their lowest level of the year. The result left year-to-date sales down 3.2% to 488,450 units.

The previous government pushed natural-gas vehicles and planned to reduce the tax on E20 cars to 20% from 30%-50% in 2009, when locally produced ethanol is more plentiful. But industry players now say a wider net must be cast to lessen the need for imported oil.

Ford Motor Co. of Thailand President Thomas Brewer says the government should explore B20 biodiesel, a 20/80 ratio of renewable biomass, such as vegetable oil, and fossil fuel. '”Some 65% of the total vehicles used in the country are 1-ton pickup trucks that consume diesel,” he tells the Bangkok Post.

But, Honda Automobile Thailand Co. Ltd. President Hiroshi Toda is recommending support for an A-segment car that provides 47 mpg (5 L/100 km) running on E20 ethanol, the same parameters set for the country’s discontinued “Best Little EcoCar Project,” which now is being revived.

The issue temporarily was pushed aside with a late September military coup that ousted controversial Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Surayud Chulanont was sworn in by Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct. 9 as the country’s interim prime minister.

The new government plans to propose a project this month to promote the production of small cars without imposing specific engine and body sizes. Officials believe if the policy is implemented quickly, Thailand could meet its target to produce 2 million vehicles by 2010.

Meanwhile, domestic auto makers are asking for tax cuts on biofuels sooner to encourage the development of alternative-energy vehicles and promote the ethanol industry. The only Thai model currently able to run on E20 is the Ford Focus.

– with Alan Harman

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com