The best monthly sales performance ever for Toyota and gains by fellow Japanese automakers Honda and Nissan helped the industry in March top last year's best month for U.S. sales despite declines by GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler.
Toyota's U.S. sales jumped 11.7 percent in March compared with a year ago, boosted by record hybrid sales and strong overall car sales. Industrywide, light vehicle sales by major automakers rose 0.8 percent to 1.54 million, Autodata Corp. said Tuesday.
The overall rise in U.S. sales came despite GM and DaimlerChrysler's sales falling about 4 percent each, and Ford posting a 9 percent drop. Ford still held off Toyota for the No. 2 U.S. sales spot for the month, and Ford regained from GM the claim to having the nation's top-selling pickup truck, even though F-series sales fell 15.1 percent.
The numbers come as the Detroit Three have seen Asian rivals led by Toyota capture growing shares of the U.S. market. Autodata's figures show GM, the world's largest automaker, had 22.4 percent of the U.S. market in March, with Ford holding 17.1 percent and Toyota with 15.7 percent. Still, GM and Ford said sales of their newer vehicles generally improved.
Jesse Toprak, chief economist for the Edmunds.com auto Web site, said the Japanese automakers will continue to prop up the broader sales picture. At year's end, he estimates GM's share at 24 percent, Toyota's at 17 percent and Ford's at 15 percent.
"The trend for the rest of the year will continue, but the growth for Toyota will slow down somewhat," Toprak said.
In all, Toyota Motor Corp. sold 242,675 Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the U.S., including 140,009 cars, up 19.4 percent from the same month a year ago, and 102,666 trucks, a 2.7 percent increase. So far this year, Toyota has sold 61,635 hybrids in the U.S., up 68 percent from the first three months of last year. That includes 28,453 hybrids last month.
"This month marks a milestone eight years in the making," Jim Lentz, executive vice president of Toyota's U.S. division, said in a statement. "Record U.S. sales of Toyota and Lexus hybrids have now topped the half-million mark."
Toyota's previous best sales month was last July, when it sold 241,826 vehicles in the U.S.
Detroit-based General Motors Corp., which saw its fleet sales drop for the month as it works to cut low-profit sales to rental car companies, sold 345,418 light vehicles, including 136,866 cars, up 2.3 percent, and 208,552 trucks, down 7.7 percent.
GM said sales of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, GMC Acadia crossover and Saturn Outlook sport utility vehicle were exceeding its expectations. Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis, said the results highlighted a strong start for its crossovers, including the Acadia.
"We have new product that's being accepted in the marketplace," Ballew said in conference call with industry analysts and reporters.
Ford Motor Co.'s sales of 263,684 light vehicles included 174,200 trucks, down 5.9 percent from the same month a year ago, and 89,484 cars, down 14.6 percent. The drop comes as Dearborn-based Ford also works to reduce fleet sales. Ford, however, said its new midsize cars -- including the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ -- and its new Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers sold well.
"We remain committed to offering more of the products that our customers really want, and the popularity of our new cars and crossovers is proof we're delivering," Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said in a statement.
Ford's sales include Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands, as well as Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo.
DaimlerChrysler AG sold 228,047 vehicles in the U.S. last month. Its Chrysler Group's passenger vehicle sales, which include the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands, fell 4.6 percent to 206,435. Mercedes sales rose 1 percent to a March record of 21,612. Chrysler Group said it sold 52,625 cars in March, down 2.6 percent from a year ago, and 153,810 trucks, down 5.3 percent.
The figures come a day before DaimlerChrysler's shareholders meet in Germany amid intense speculation about a possible sale of the Chrysler division. Prospects for Chrysler have been a hot topic since DaimlerChrysler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche first publicly floated the idea in February. Chrysler says the speculation didn't hurt sales.
At Ford, sales of the Fusion were up 47.5 percent to 15,790 from a year ago. But sales of F-series pickup trucks dropped to 71,481. Ford said the increasing availability of the 2008 Super Duty should help future F-series performance.
"Overall it was a good month except in one respect -- when we compare it to a year ago," George Pipas, Ford's top sales analyst, said in conference call.
Analysts predict that Toyota will continue to make gains this year and likely will knock Ford off its traditional No. 2 spot in U.S. sales for the full year.
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