Negative trends continue in March for U.S. automakers

DETROIT — DETROIT -- Given the economic storm brewing nationwide - a sluggish housing market, rising gas prices and waning consumer confidence - the flat auto sales results in March weren't so bad.

Consumers bought 1.5 million new cars and trucks last month, an 0.8 percent improvement over last year but still a slow kickoff for the spring selling season. For the year, sales are down 1.2 percent. Truck sales are flat, while car sales are down 1.7 percent.


Negative trends continued for Detroit automakers, which continued to perform worse than the overall industry.

Sales were down 4.0 percent at General Motors Corp. and 4.1 percent at DaimlerChrysler AG, which is exploring the sale of its Chrysler Group unit. Ford Motor Co. posted the worst results of the three, with a decline of 9.0 percent from March 2006. Of the company's six brands, only the luxury Lincoln make, boosted by the MKZ sedan, posted a sales gain.


In all, domestic brands for GM, Ford and Chrysler lost 3.6 percentage points of market share in March, capturing just 51.6 percent of sales in the United States.

Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Corp. continued to steal the spotlight. Sales for the Japanese automaker were up 11.7 percent in March.

It was as if the same economic head wind that stymied other automakers helped Toyota.

"When the economy gets a little tighter, when fuel prices go up, I think there is a consumer attitude that does say 'Hey, we ought to take a look at Toyota,'" Don Esmond, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota's U.S. sales arm, said during a conference call with journalists.

Honda Motor Co. sales were up 11.3 percent, but Toyota has been more consistent in its double-digit gains. Toyota sales are up 11.2 percent for the first three months of the year; Honda gained a more modest 6.1 percent for that period.

A key explanation for the discrepancy in performance between Toyota and Detroit's automakers may be California and Florida, which are the country's No. 1 and No. 2 auto sales markets.

Ford's top sales analyst George Pipas said those two states "have exhibited some of the largest declines" in sales.

But not at Toyota.


"Those continue to be our two strongest markets overall in volume," Esmond said.

David Healy, an automotive analyst with Burnham Securities, said Toyota continues to impress, month after month, for one big reason.

"They have a lineup of models that customers continue to prefer," he said.

Below the surface of the dismal Detroit results, especially Ford's 9.0 percent drop, the picture is not so bleak, Pipas said.

Ford's retail market share has been hovering at about 13 percent for the past 10 months. Although Pipas was reluctant to say Ford's retail sales have "stabilized," he called the performance "an encouraging sign."

What's more, the proportion of sales going to car rental companies declined from 21 percent in the first three months of 2006 to 16 percent during the comparable period this year, part of the company's deliberate strategic move away from low-profit sales.


Mazda, which is controlled by Ford, posted a 47.9 percent sales gain in March, boosting the Japanese automaker's year-to-date increase to 17.5 percent over the comparable period last year.

GM also said it viewed its March and first-quarter results as "solid," particularly because it also continued to reduce the number of vehicles sold to daily rental companies, cutting the number by 16,000 vehicles in March.