DETROIT — U.S. auto sales in May brought the starkest signs yet that gas prices have dramatically shifted the market to smaller cars, as the top-selling Ford F-series truck was dethroned by cars from Toyota and Honda and as General Motors announced it was closing four truck and SUV plants after dismal results.
GM said Tuesday its sales fell 28 percent in May compared to a year earlier, with a 37 percent decline in truck and SUV sales and a 14 percent drop in car sales. At the automaker’s annual meeting in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, CEO Rick Wagoner said GM will close four truck and SUV plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico by 2010, affecting 10,000 jobs.
“We at GM don’t think this is a spike or a temporary shift,” Wagoner said of the drop in truck sales.
Ford’s sales fell 16 percent for the month, while Chrysler LLC’s sales were down 25 percent and Toyota Motor Corp.’s sales slipped 4 percent. Overall sales were down 11 percent compared to last May, according to Autodata Corp.
Honda Motor Co., riding the wave of customers seeking better fuel efficiency, said its sales rose 18 percent; a 36 percent increase in car sales made up for an 8 percent decline in truck and SUV sales.
Nissan Motor Co. said its sales rose 8 percent, with a 19 percent increase in car sales offsetting a 10 percent decline in trucks.
High gas prices, the weak economy and low consumer confidence are taking their toll on larger vehicles. Ford Motor Co. sales chief Jim Farley said small and mid-size cars made up 47 percent of sales in May, up from 34 percent in February.
The shift represents 1.5 million vehicles at Ford.
“May was a watershed month. We are, as an industry, catching up with the breathtaking choices customers are now making,” Farley said in a conference call with media and analysts.
The Toyota Corolla and Camry and Honda Civic and Accord sedans each outsold the F-series truck, which saw monthly sales plummet 31 percent in May to 42,973. F-series trucks have been the best-selling trucks in the U.S. for 31 years and the best-selling vehicles overall for nearly as long.
F-series trucks have also been the best-selling vehicles each month since June 2005, when the Chevrolet Silverado pickup took a brief lead, said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for the Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power. The last time a car topped the monthly sales charts was the Ford Taurus sedan in December 1992, according to Ford’s top U.S. sales analyst George Pipas.
Sean McAlinden, chief economist with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said the U.S. market will likely look like the European one, where small cars make up nearly 40 percent of sales, in five to ten years. That shift could make it harder for the Detroit Three to win customers, he said.
“Only a few companies ever made really good trucks, but a lot of companies make good little cars,” he said. “The competition level is going to go up, way up.”
Ford’s U.S. car sales were up 3 percent compared with last May, and it sold more than 30,000 Ford Focus small cars for only the second time in the car’s nine-year history. But pickup and SUV sales dropped 26 percent. Farley said the company plans to offer an employee-pricing discount on F-series trucks this summer to clear out inventory before the new F-series arrives this fall.
Ford said last month it plans to slash North American production of trucks and SUVs for the rest of the year. Ford also is planning to lay off salaried workers as part of a restructuring plan that will be detailed next month.
Toyota’s U.S. sales dropped 4 percent for the month, as flat results for cars were dragged down by a 12 percent decline in trucks and SUVs.
Chrysler said car sales fell 33 percent and truck sales were down 22 percent despite an incentive program that lets buyers lock in gas prices at $2.99 per gallon. Chrysler said the decline was mainly due to a 40 percent cutback in sales to rental car companies and other fleets.
Steven Landry, executive vice president for North American sales, said the $2.99 gas incentive has lured people into dealerships and will be continued through July 7. He said between 5 and 10 percent of buyers are choosing the fuel guarantee over other incentives.
Landry said May’s sales figures were sobering for the industry.
“This month is one that particularly lets us look deep into the numbers and determine our game plan for the rest of this year,” he said.
Mark LaNeve, GM’s vice president of North American sales, said earlier forecasts for an improvement in the second half of the year now look overly optimistic. But GM does think sales are hitting their low point now.
“We still think we’re somewhere near the bottom and we look for a firming up and a gradual recovery beginning in the back half of the year,” he said.
GM shares rose 14 cents to close at $17.58. Ford shares rose 4 cents to $6.68, while Toyota’s U.S. shares fell 22 cents to $102.29.
The Associated Press reports unadjusted figures, calculating the percentage change in the total number of vehicles sold in one month compared with the same month a year earlier. Some automakers report percentages adjusted for sales days. There were 27 sales days last month and 26 in May 2007.
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