The gas-electric hybrid car, once the domain of your granola-crunching, environmentally conscious neighbor, moved into the mainstream last month as $3 per gallon gasoline helped to nearly triple Toyota Prius sales.
Toyota Motor Corp. sold just over 24,000 Priuses in May, boosting the car into ninth place among all vehicles for the month and cracking the list of 10 top sellers for the first time, the company said.
Prius sales helped Toyota post a U.S. sales gain of 14.1 percent in May compared to the same month last year as gas prices also pushed up sales of its Corolla, Yaris and Camry models.
General Motors Corp., which also said it benefited from high gas prices in some segments, reported that sales rose 9.7 percent, helping to boost industry sales by 5 percent.
All major automakers except Ford Motor Co. reported sales gains for May on Friday as the automotive market rebounded a bit from lackluster months earlier in the year.
Toyota, which has been gaining market share in the U.S., posted its highest monthly total ever in May. It sold 269,023 Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles, topping its previous monthly record of 242,675 set in March. Car sales rose 16.2 percent, while light truck sales, including the Tundra pickup, rose 10.9 percent.
The Prius, which gets an estimated 55 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving, helped push Toyota’s U.S. sales above Ford Motor Co., which saw a decline of 6.9 percent as it continued to cut low-profit sales to rental companies.
Nearly 15 percent of Toyota’s sales were hybrids, which has the company convinced that their appeal has moved beyond buyers wishing to make a statement about global warming.
Randy Pflughaupt, Toyota’s vice president of marketing, said Prius buyers are now more diverse, attracting those who want better gas mileage or even a third family car.
Because of the gas prices and some option discounts last month, a buyer can earn back the premium paid for the hybrid in as little as five months, Toyota officials said during a conference call with reporters and industry analysts.
“It’s really quite a diverse lineup of folks that are selecting Prius,” Pflughaupt said.
But some buyers in May didn’t seem to be affected by fuel prices, with pickup truck sales rising 3.5 percent.
“It was almost like a pick-and-choose sort of impact,” said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for the Edmunds.com auto Web site.
Paul Ballew, GM’s executive director of global market and industry analysis, said that since 2005, several trends have emerged when gasoline prices rise in the spring, and this year was no different.
Buyers tend to shift from trucks to cars, luxury car sales tend to weaken, small and mid-sized car sales rise and people tend to choose four-cylinder powertrains over larger engines, he said.
The industrywide mix of cars and trucks was about equal in May, and trucks normally account for about 55 percent of the market, according to Ballew.
But like 2005 and 2006, Ballew predicts a gradual drop in gasoline prices during the summer and a return to the 55 percent truck mix later in the year.
Still, Ballew said GM was helped in some areas from higher gas prices because its pickup trucks get better gas mileage than competitors, as do its mid-sized crossover vehicles. And it has a wider array of mid-sized and small cars than in the past, he said.
“We’re much better positioned than where we were,” he said.
GM, the industry’s top seller, said it sold 371,056 light vehicles last month. Car sales, including the Chevrolet Impala and Saturn Aura, rose 16.2 percent, while light truck sales, including the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, gained 5.6 percent.
The Silverado again passed Ford’s F-Series pickups as the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. in May.
DaimlerChrysler AG reported sales up 3.9 percent and American Honda Motor Co. rose 2.5 percent. Nissan Motor Co. posted a strong gain at 7.4 percent.
Industrywide U.S. sales in May rose to 1.56 million from 1.49 million in May 2006, according to Autodata Corp.
Toyota sales surpassed Ford’s in two months last year as well as in January of this year. Analysts predict that Toyota likely will knock Ford out of its traditional No. 2 spot for the full year in 2007, but Ford has said it is focused more on returning to profitability in North America.
Ford said sales of Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover brands to retail customers, which were 3 percent lower than a year ago, still marked its best retail month of the year as the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers continued to make gains.
Ford said it now expects Edge sales to reach 120,000 this year, 20 percent higher than its original forecast.
Truck sales were essentially flat from a year ago with the F-Series down nearly 12 percent. Car sales dropped 17.7 percent with the Ford Fusion, which had seen sales rise in previous months, posting a 4.4 percent decline.
Still, George Pipas, Ford’s top sales analyst, said the numbers indicate Ford’s U.S. market share appears to have stabilized between 14 percent and 15 percent — a milestone, since it had been losing about 1 percentage point of share per year previously. The company had set 14 percent to 15 percent as a goal for 2007 and 2008 under its restructuring plan.
Chrysler Group’s passenger vehicle sales, which include the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands, rose 4.3 percent with help from a 20 percent jump in its Jeep brand, while Mercedes sales rose 0.7 percent. Dodge sales were up about 3 percent.
Nissan said its U.S. sales, including Nissan and Infiniti, rose on good performances by its larger sedans and fuel-efficient small cars. Car sales rose 24.7 percent, but light truck sales fell 14.2 percent.
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.