Automakers see sales fall during March

/ Source: The Associated Press

Automakers reported double-digit U.S. sales declines in March as demand for trucks and sport utility vehicles plummeted and consumers held back because of concerns about gas prices, the housing slump and tightening credit.

General Motors Corp.’s U.S. sales fell 19 percent, Ford’s sales dropped 14 percent and even industry stalwart Toyota was down 10 percent compared with last March, according to figures released Tuesday. Nissan fell 4 percent, and Honda reported a 3 percent drop. Some automakers warned things could continue to worsen in the near term.

“I’d like to be able to tell you that the worst is behind us, but I really can’t give you that assurance,” Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.’s sales and marketing chief, said in a conference call with reporters and analysts. Farley said Ford is concerned the shrinking availability of consumer credit will continue to hurt sales and that the second quarter could be more difficult than the first.

GM’s truck and SUV sales were down 22 percent in March while its car sales fell 14 percent. New vehicles like the Chevrolet Malibu were a bright spot, with sales up 17 percent, but sales of Chevrolet pickups were down 25 percent while sales of GM’s gas-guzzling Hummer brand were down 29 percent. GM’s sales were down 11 percent for the first quarter.

“There’s no question that the industry and the economy is in a weakened state,” Mike DiGiovanni, GM’s executive director of global markets and industry analysis, said in a conference call. “We expected the first three quarters to be weak, and this has exceeded what we thought.”

DiGiovanni said GM remains hopeful the federal economic stimulus package will help sales in the second half of the year.

Mark LaNeve, GM’s vice president for North American sales and marketing, said a monthlong strike by American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc. that has idled or shut down 30 factories that make GM trucks, cars and SUVs has cut GM’s production by 100,000 vehicles. But he said slow sales and a high inventory before the strike has minimized the impact. LaNeve said inventory of trucks and SUVs was “more than adequate” for spring, but he wouldn’t speculate on whether the strike will impact hotter sellers like the Malibu.

“We don’t believe that it’s affected retail business one bit to date,” LaNeve said.

A 24 percent jump in sales for Ford’s popular Edge crossover couldn’t make up for falling sales of pickups and large SUVs. Ford’s truck and SUV sales dropped 16 percent versus March 2007. Sales of the Ford Expedition SUV fell 34 percent, while sales of the perennially popular F-Series pickup — which will be replaced with a new version this fall — were down 24 percent.

Ford’s car sales were down 10 percent, dragged by declining demand for the Ford Mustang and Crown Victoria sedan. Ford’s overall sales for the first quarter were down 9 percent.

Toyota Motor Corp., which beat Ford to become the No. 2 automaker by U.S. sales last year, held onto its lead in the first quarter, outselling Ford by more than 43,000 vehicles. But Toyota took a beating in March, reporting truck and SUV sales down 14 percent and car sales down 7 percent. The Tundra pickup saw a surprising 17 percent sales increase, but totals were dragged down by SUV sales, which fell 20 percent. Toyota’s sales were down 6 percent for the quarter.

Honda Motor Co., which had bucked the downward sales trend in February, saw its 3 percent increase in car sales eroded by a 12 percent decline in truck and SUV sales. That drop was led by the Honda Pilot SUV, which saw sales fall 24 percent. Honda’s sales were flat for the first quarter.

Nissan Motor Co. reported a 10 percent increase in car sales, led by the subcompact Versa and the newly redesigned Altima. But Nissan’s truck and SUV sales plunged 20 percent, with the Nissan Titan pickup down 45 percent for the month and the Nissan Armada SUV down 43 percent. Nissan’s overall sales were down 4 percent for the quarter.

Truck sales have been hurt by the slowdown in housing construction. Small cars fared best as consumers focused on fuel efficiency. The Ford Focus saw sales jump 24 percent for the month, while Toyota’s subcompact Yaris saw sales rise 83 percent and Honda’s subcompact Fit saw a 74 percent jump.

GM and Ford said consumers are also choosing more fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines over six-cylinder options. Ford’s top U.S. sales analyst George Pipas said 70 percent of Ford Fusion buyers are now getting the four-cylinder engine for the midsize car, compared to 60 percent at this time last year.

GM shares were up 59 cents, or 3 percent, to $19.64 in afternoon trading. Ford shares rose 17 cents to $5.89, Toyota’s U.S. shares rose $2.03 to $102.92 and Honda’s U.S. shares were up 99 cents to $29.80. Auto shares rallied along with the market amid optimism that the worst of the credit crisis has passed and that the economy is faring better than expected.

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 26 sales days last month and 28 in March 2007.