GM, Ford lead 2.9% drop in sales in March

DETROIT — DETROIT -- General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., the biggest U.S. automakers, sold fewer vehicles in March as they tried to rely less on fleet buyers such as rental agencies. That led to the industry's first monthly decline this year.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s sales increased 6.9 percent from a year earlier and DaimlerChrysler AG's rose 2.9 percent. GM's drop was 14 percent and Ford's was 4.6 percent, the companies said yesterday. Sales rose 0.2 percent at Honda Motor Co. and decreased 2.6 percent at Nissan Motor Co.


"GM is falling further behind competitors," said Sean Egan, managing director of Egan-Jones Ratings Co. of Haverford, Pa.

Industrywide sales slid 2.9 percent as GM and Ford sought to reduce sales to fleet customers, which generate little or no profit.


U.S. market share for GM, Ford and Chrysler declined to 56.6 percent in March from 59.4 percent a year earlier, based on Autodata Corp. figures. North American auto operations at GM and Ford have lost money as Toyota and other Asian rivals captured more sales and market share.

Asian automakers increased their U.S. share to 38.1 percent in March from 36.2 percent a year earlier.

U.S. sales of cars and light trucks fell to 1.53 million from 1.58 million. The March sales on a seasonally adjusted basis would yield an annual rate of 16.6 million vehicles, compared with 16.9 million in the comparable month last year, according to Bloomberg data.

GM, the world's largest automaker, said March sales fell to 365,375 cars and trucks from 426,114. That included declines of 22 percent for cars and 9.5 percent for light trucks.

"We're not pleased with our sales decline, but it's important for us to improve the quality of our sales," GM sales analyst Paul Ballew said on a conference call. Sales to corporate fleets accounted for 25 percent of March sales and 30 percent for the quarter, spokeswoman Deborah Silverman said.

The company announced monthly sales after saying earlier yesterday that it had agreed to sell a majority of its finance unit for $7.4 billion. GM, which had a $10.6 billion net loss last year, is trying to raise cash to buy out workers and invest in new cars and trucks to win back customers.

GM also is in talks to try to avoid a strike by the United Auto Workers union against auto parts maker Delphi Corp., the automaker's biggest supplier. Delphi filed a bankruptcy court motion last week to cut wages and jobs.

"I think there's hesitation on the part of consumers" because of GM's problems, said David Hilton, senior manager in the Americas automotive consulting practice of Cap Gemini SA.


Sales of the Silverado pickup truck, GM's top-selling vehicle in the United States, fell 15 percent, and sales of the Impala car declined 4 percent. GM announced increased sales of some of its redesigned sport utility vehicles, including a 20 percent rise for the Tahoe and a 45 percent increase for the Escalade.

Ford, the second-biggest U.S. automaker, said its sales declined to 291,146 vehicles from 305,172 a year earlier.

Ford's fleet sales accounted for 33 percent of its March total for the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands, company sales analyst George Pipas said on a conference call. That was down from 40 percent in January and February combined, he said.

Ford's car sales fell 2.8 percent, and trucks fell 5.6 percent. Sales of the Explorer midsize SUV fell 31 percent to 17,157, while sales of the Five Hundred sedan declined 18 percent. F-Series pickups, the industry's top-selling line of vehicles, posted a 4.5 percent gain to 84,168.

DaimlerChrysler said its gain to 237,829 from 231,140 included increases of 1.6 percent to 216,412 for Chrysler and 18 percent to 21,417 for Mercedes-Benz.

Toyota, the world's No. 2 automaker, sold 217,286 Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles. The company said its March gains were led by the Sienna minivan and new models, including the redesigned RAV4 small SUV, FJ Cruiser SUV and Yaris small car. Toyota is fourth in U.S. sales.


Honda's sales rose to 128,806. The automaker, which ranks fifth in U.S. sales, said its increase was led by the Civic small car. Honda sold 28,969 Civics, a 14 percent gain. Accord sedan sales fell 10 percent to 29,623.

Nissan's decline was to 103,095 cars and trucks. Sales fell about 1,000 each for its Altima and Maxima models, the company's best-selling sedans, said U.S. sales chief Jed Connelly.

Connelly said sales of the Infiniti luxury division declined about 12 percent. Tokyo-based Nissan is Japan's second-biggest automaker and ranks sixth in the United States.

Hyundai Motor Co.'s sales rose 4.3 percent to 41,766, the Seoul-based company said in a statement.

Hyundai, which is seventh in U.S. sales, sold 17,487 Sonata midsize sedans, a record for the model, and 2,401 of its new Azera large sedan.