Ford Motor Co. outsold rival General Motors in the U.S. last month for the second time since 1998, Automotive News reports.
Ford, aided by a 21% jump in truck sales amid rising gasoline prices, today said it sold 212,295 light vehicles last month, or 5,674 more than GM. Ford's overall gain of 16% was its biggest this year.
Ford last outsold GM in February 2010, but by a slimmer margin of just 471 vehicles, according to the Automotive News Data Center. In July 1998, GM, hobbled by a strike at Delphi Corp., was outsold by Ford by 83,883 units.
GM, which outperformed the overall U.S. market in January and February, is still ahead of Ford in year-to-date sales by more than 97,000 units. It has been the U.S. sales leader on an annual basis since 1931.
Separately, Chrysler Group said its March sales rose 31% to the highest level in three years. Dodge brand sales jumped 50%. Nissan Motor Corp. posted record monthly sales of 121,141, up from 95,468 a year earlier.
The results so far indicate the industry is overcoming concerns about rising fuel prices and any consumer jitters about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Ford's March results were driven by higher fleet sales, strong F-Series demand and record monthly sales of the Fusion and Escape. Fiesta sales reached 9,787, up 56% over February, the automaker said.
The Ford division posted a 28% jump in sales, offsetting a 2% decline in volume at Lincoln. Ford's F-Series truck lineup -- featuring more fuel-efficient powertrains for 2011 -- posted sales of 53,272, up 25% compared to a year ago.
"The No. 1 unmet need for full-size pickup truck owners has been fuel economy," Doug Scott, marketing manager for Ford's truck line, said in a statement.
Ford said its retail sales -- a key measure of consumer demand -- rose 14%. Fleet sales were up 29%, with commercial sales up 50%, government demand up 33% and daily rental volume up 13%.
New models such as the Chevrolet Cruze and healthy demand for fuel-efficient cars and crossovers helped GM post a 10% gain in March sales.
The automaker said car sales rose 15%, while crossover demand jumped 30% and big pickup sales jumped 11%.
It was the seventh-consecutive monthly sales gain for GM, but trailed the increases posted in January and February as the automaker reduced discounts.
GM's average incentive dropped 17% to $3,109 per vehicle last month from February levels, online shopping guide TrueCar estimated.
GM said retail sales advanced 17% compared with March 2010.
Combined retail sales of models launched since June 2009 -- including the Chevrolet Equinox, Cruze and Volt; Buick Regal; GMC Terrain; and Cadillac SRX -- advanced 54% last month and rose 74% during the first quarter, GM said.
Fleet sales represented 24% of GM's sales volume during the first quarter, compared with 30% in the first quarter of 2010.
"Our plan was to get out of the gates quickly in the first quarter and we succeeded," Don Johnson, head of GM's U.S. sales operations, said in a statement.
Sales on rebound
Overall, U.S. auto sales in March are expected to rise about 12% from last year's levels as the industry continues to rebound.
But rising gasoline prices and manufacturing disruptions caused by the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis could slow the industry's ongoing sales recovery during the spring selling season, analysts say.
And while credit markets continue to thaw, making it easier for consumers to finance new vehicle purchases, new vehicle demand is still being hampered by high unemployment and a weak housing market.
The Labor Department reported today that employers added 216,000 jobs in March, slightly above forecasts and a fresh sign hiring is gaining momentum.
Consumer confidence fell more than expected to a three-month in March, the Conference Board said earlier this week. The business group said 3.6% of Americans plan to buy a new car in the next six months, down from 3.9% in February.
Analysts say GM, Toyota Motor Corp. and others dialed back on incentives in March -- resulting in smaller sales gains for the month after February demand rose 27% and January volume jumped 17%.
TrueCar.com estimates the industry's average incentive per vehicle dropped 6% from February to $2,432 last month. In March 2010, industry discounts averaged $2,798 per vehicle.
Still, March sales are expected to top 12 million vehicles on a seasonally adjusted basis for the sixth consecutive month. The consensus of 9 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg was 12.9 million.
That would be up from a SAAR of 11.78 million a year earlier and down from February's 13.4 million SAAR.
Industry sales are up 23% through February this year.
Watching gas prices
The rise in oil and gasoline prices is drawing buyers away from light trucks and into smaller cars, analysts said.
In a recent report, J. P. Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel said that each $1 increase in the U.S. retail price of gas results in a 5 percentage-point shift toward lower-margin cars for automakers.
U.S. gas prices rose more than 3 cents to $3.60 a gallon over the last week, and have climbed by 80 cents from a year ago, the Energy Department said this week.
Political turmoil in the Middle East has sent the cost of crude oil to above $100 a barrel.
"When there is unrest, consumers tend to take a wait and see approach to purchasing big ticket items," Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.com, said last week.
The aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last month is also expected to dampen supplies and sales of select models in coming weeks.
"The uncertainty surrounding future production and vehicle availability may limit dealers' willingness to provide additional discounts on top of OEM incentives," analyst Richard M. Kwas of Wells Fargo said in a report this week.
As a result, Mr. Kwas expects the April SAAR to fall sequentially from March because of inventory shortages caused by the Japanese earthquake.
~ ~ ~
Reuters and Bloomberg contributed to this report
For more information on the auto industry, visit Automotive News.