Video: Auto sales skid

updated 4/1/2005 6:28:50 PM ET 2005-04-01T23:28:50

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. said Friday that new vehicle sales in March failed to match year-ago levels, despite hopes for a recovery after a tough winter. Meanwhile, in an oft-repeated pattern, some Asian brands reported record demand.

March’s results created a conflicting message about the effect of rising gas prices on buying habits. Gas prices jumped to an average of $2.15 per gallon nationwide last week, according to federal figures.

Toyota Motor Corp. said its gas-electric Prius hybrid, which gets around 55 miles per gallon on the highway, had its best-ever sales of 10,236 vehicles.

“Spurred by escalating oil prices, the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles has definitely stepped up,” said Jim Press, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

But several automakers reported soaring demand for trucks. Nissan Motor Co. posted a 33.3 percent increase in truck sales in March, including a 42 percent jump in demand for its Titan full-size pickup, which gets around 19 mpg on the highway.

GM reported its best month for full-size pickups since 1978 and said its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups both had record months. Ford said sales of its F-Series pickups were up 1 percent from the year before.

“I know it’s popular to write the obituary on large trucks because of gas prices,” said GM’s top global markets analyst Paul Ballew. “But it’s very important for us to focus on the basic facts.”

Industrywide, vehicle sales rose about 1 percent from last March. The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate was 16.85 million units, up from 16.79 million a year ago, according to research firm Autodata Corp. The rate indicates what sales would be for the full year if they remained at the same pace for all 12 months. Full-year sales for 2004 were about 17 million.

Asian brands continued to grab U.S. market share, posting a combined 7 percent rise in sales last month. The traditional Big Three, meanwhile, saw sales fall 1 percent.

GM, the world’s largest automaker, said March sales fell 1.3 percent and now are down 3.8 percent for the year. While GM was hoping for a stronger month, the numbers were far better than February, when GM announced a 12.7 percent decline and cut its production schedule.

GM truck sales were up 3.8 percent, but car sales fell 8 percent and are down 8 percent for the year despite new entries such as the Pontiac G6, the Buick LaCrosse and the Chevrolet Cobalt.

Ford, the nation’s No. 2 automaker, reported a 5 percent decline in U.S. sales for the month. Sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury trucks and sport utility vehicles, which have been the company’s bread and butter, fell 6.6 percent in March and are down 7.9 percent for the year.

Ford’s car sales were down 1.75 percent for the month but are up 5.1 percent for the year, helped by the hot-selling Ford Mustang. Ford also said the Mercury Montego sedan achieved its best sales since it went on sale last fall.

George Pipas, Ford’s top sales analyst, said traditional truck-based SUVs were in decline well before the rise in gas prices because small SUVs and crossovers are providing consumers with more options. Pipas said crossovers represented 15 percent of total SUV sales in 2000 and 41 percent in 2004.

Sales of Ford’s largest SUVs — the Excursion, Expedition and Explorer — all fell by more than 25 percent in March, while demand for the smaller Escape rose 7 percent. Ford’s overall sales of cars and trucks are down 3.8 percent for the year. GM also said sales of its traditional SUVs declined.

In a familiar pattern, Asian automakers and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group all reported gains in March thanks to fresh lineups.

Chrysler Group reported a 3.6 percent increase for the month, including record sales for the Chrysler brand and its popular flagship, the Chrysler 300 sedan. Chrysler’s sales are up 7 percent for the year, although truck sales are up just 2.4 percent.

Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai Motor Co. all reported record sales in March. Toyota sales were up 12.3 percent for the month and 10.6 percent for the year, largely due to increased car sales. Toyota’s new Avalon sedan went on sale in February.

Nissan sales were up 12.5 percent in March. South Korean automaker Hyundai said sales were up 7 percent, adding that its small Tucson SUV had its best month ever.

Honda Motor Co. reported a 6.8 percent increase in March, turning around a lackluster winter with a 19.4 percent increase in truck sales. Honda’s sales for the year are flat.

All percentages are adjusted and based on the daily sales rate. There were 27 selling days last month and 26 in March 2004.

Automakers appeared to be limiting incentive spending. In a new report, Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., said most automakers were sticking to a pledge to dial back incentives or at least avoid the double-digit growth so common in the past year.

Spinella said final March figures show GM, Ford and Chrysler lowered incentive spending 1 percent, 1.7 percent and 3.8 percent respectively in March versus February. Toyota’s average outlay was down 3.1 percent, Spinella said, while Honda and Nissan had slight upticks.

Overall, industrywide spending fell 1 percent in March from February but was up 16 percent versus a year ago, he said.

Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said sales should continue to improve in April as frigid temperatures subside in the East and Midwest and make car shopping more appealing.

“Both heating fuel costs and gasoline costs have been a drag on consumers’ disposable incomes, but heating costs will fade in April,” Taylor said. “Gasoline prices appear headed upward a bit more, and that will change the mix of vehicle selling, as happened in March.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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