MARCH U.S. SALES

Auto sales plummet by 12%

Ford sees light-truck sales collapse; GM: 'Lowest March on record'

UPDATED: 4/1/08 5:25 pm EDT DETROIT -- March U.S. auto sales plummeted by 12.0 percent to 1.36 million vehicles. And the first quarter results weren’t much better. Sales declined 8.0 percent for the quarter to 3.58 million vehicles.

Few automakers were spared from the bloodshed, even Toyota. Credit crunches, mortgage messes and rising fuel prices all combined to bring down sales and lower consumer confidence. The only hints of optimism during the month arose from smaller fuel-efficient vehicles.

In March, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. suffered its fourth straight month of lower sales, something that hasn’t happened in recent memory.

Sales at Toyota, including the Scion and Lexus brands, declined 10.3 percent over last March and fell 5.6 percent for the first quarter. That’s still better than GM and Ford, but worrisome nonetheless.

With sales melting, Toyota officials say they are now revising their 2008 sales forecast, which had been in the range of 16 million up until now. Speaking to reporters Tuesday in conference call, the company said it has not arrived at a specific new forecast yet.

Toyota’s big problem is the same as most of the rest of the industry: trucks and SUVs.

Toyota’s total truck sales fell 8.8 percent in March. Sales of its Tacoma were off 8 percent, its FJ Cruiser by 41.6 percent, and its 4Runner by 39.6 percent. Even its small RAV4 -- for which Toyota is just completing a new $1 billion Canadian assembly plant -- fell by 21.8 percent in March.

Toyota already responded to the disappointing truck market in March by trimming production of full-size Tundras and Sequoias at plants in Texas and Indiana by an undisclosed amount.

Toyota’s cars still did well, with the Camry sedan posting its best-ever sales in March at 40,487 units. The gasoline-electric Prius also turned in an all-star performance with sales of 20,635 cars, its best March on record.

Toyota's Lexus Division turned in a rare lackluster month in March. Sales were down 6.9 percent -- and Lexus’ car sales declined 11.6 percent.

Chrysler leads decliners

Chrysler LLC's 19.4 percent plunge in sales was the industry's biggest for the month among major automakers. Chrysler sold 166,386 vehicles in March. Sales fell 15.5 for the first quarter.

"The market is tough right now for certain vehicles, especially pickup trucks," said Steven Landry, executive vice president North American sales. "We have reduced our daily rental fleet sales which makes our sales numbers lower."

He said that the lower sales to rental fleets help bolster resale values.

General Motors also had a tough month, but it did have a few bright spots. First the bad news: GM sold 282,732 vehicles in March, down 18.7 percent over last year. Weak truck sales -- down 22.4 percent -- bludgeoned the automaker’s results. Car sales dropped 7.6 percent, according to GM’s figures.

For the first quarter, GM’s total sales fell 10.9 percent.

After coming off the "lowest March on record since we've kept records," GM Executive Director of Global Market Analysis Mike Giovanni said the company was sticking with its original 2008 sales forecast of 15.3-15.4 million vehicles.

"The most important thing, in our mind, for why we haven't changed our forecast is because of the stimulus packages that have been put in place," Giovanni said, adding the most significant efforts will only start to be felt in the coming months.

On the plus side, the Cadillac division, on the strength of the new CTS, posted a gain of 7 percent. With greater availability of fuel-sipping four-cylinder models, Saturn Aura sales are finally starting to pick up. Saturn sold 6,241 Aura sedans last month, a 12.9 percent gain over last March when only the V-6 model was available.

And GM's trio of crossovers -- the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook -- also turned in solid sales performances in March, selling more than 14,000 units.

More blues for Ford

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. also attributed its 14.1 percent drop over last March to the collapse of light-truck sales. In March, Ford delivered 129,063 light trucks, down from 156,036 a year ago.

For the month, Ford -- including Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo -- sold 227,143 vehicles, down from 264,975 last year.

Ford’s total sales fell 9.0 percent for the first quarter compared with the same quarter last year.

There were a few bright spots. Customers looking for more fuel-efficient vehicles found a few at Ford dealerships. The redesigned Focus sedan posted a 23.2 percent gain over last year with March sales of 21,168. The Taurus and Fusion sedans also notched small increases, and sales of the Escape crossover rose 12 percent over last year.

Ford's U.S. sales chief Jim Farley said Tuesday that the next three months may be the most difficult quarter of 2008.

"It's a very challenging market," said Farley, Ford group vice president of marketing and communications. "And I'd like to be able to tell you the worst is behind us, but I can't really give you that assurance."

Farley said Ford is concerned about the uncertainty surrounding all the issues in the industry sales environment "especially the credit availability for consumers."

Ford's management team continues to meet weekly to keep its production schedule in line with the direction of the market.

"We're realistic," Farley said. "We're frankly not taking an optimistic approach, and we review demand and adjust production accordingly."

Ford hasn't trimmed its first-half sales forecast of a seasonally adjusted annual rate for the industry of 15.2 million to 15.7 million vehicles. But company officials acknowledge that sales are on the low end of that range so far this year.

Other results mixed

American Honda Motor Co. fared better than most major automakers in the U.S. Its sales fell 3.2 percent for the month and 0.4 percent for the quarter. When adjusted for two extra sales days, Honda said its sales actually increased.

Honda car sales remained strong, led by sales of the Accord, Civic and Fit.

“The Honda product portfolio is adapting well to the current direction of the marketplace," Dick Colliver, executive vice president of American Honda, said in a statement.

"People are clearly being more strategic with their money as parts of the economy seek balance and other parts adjust to record-high gasoline prices."

Also on the plus side, Volkswagen posted a 7.8 percent sales gain over March 2007. Quarterly sales are down slightly by 0.7 percent. The Jetta sedan led the way with sales of 8,630 units, a 19 percent surge over last year, the company said. In all, VW sold 19,587 units in March.

Daimler, which includes Mercedes-Benz, Maybach and Smart, gained 4.3 percent in March and 9.1 percent for the first quarter. Mercedes sold 20,808 vehicles in March, down from 21,612 a year earlier. But that was still good enough to give Mercedes its highest ever first quarter sales in the United States.

Smart, meanwhile, sold 1,734 of its microcars in March. The automaker has sold 3,476 of the vehicles since it arrived in showrooms in mid-January. Smart says 67 retail centers are selling the vehicle now. The company says it has “well over 30,000 net reservations and dealership traffic remains strong.”

Nissan recorded a 3.8 percent drop for the month and a 3.3 percent drop for the quarter.

Still, Nissan said sales of its Altima and Versa sedans and the Rogue crossover SUV helped the company post its best ever month of sales, with 56,453 cars sold.

Mazda, despite gains from some hot-selling vehicles, posted a 12.8 percent drop for the month and 1.8 percent for the quarter.

Meanwhile, Hyundai and Kia posted a combined 2.7 percent drop for the month and 8.0 percent for the quarter. Still,l Hyundai’s lineup of fuel efficient economy cars sold well. The South Korean automaker saw record March sales of 42,796 vehicles. Most of Hyundai's newer nameplates or refreshed vehicles posted the gains. Accent, Sonata, Elantra, Azera and Vera Cruz cruised to solid gains.

"We are very encouraged by our March results, especially considering the market we are in," said Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai Motor America's vice president of sales said in a statement.

BMW sales dropped 5.4 percent for the month and 9.1 percent for the quarter.

The rest of the U.S. March sales reports are expected this afternoon.

Lindsay Chappell, Philip Nussel and Ryan Beene contributed to this report

March U.S. sales
MarchMarchMarch3 mos.3 mos.Pct.
20082007chng.20082007chng.
Aston Martin140420
BMW Group*27,44129,015–5.4%68,64075,538–9.1%
Chrysler LLC**166,386206,435–19.4%453,871537,249–15.5%
Daimler AG***22,55721,6344.3%61,16856,0519.1%
Ford Motor Co.****226,448263,607–14.1%581,784639,605–9.0%
General Motors*****280,713345,417–18.7%800,376898,442–10.9%
American Honda†138,734143,392–3.2%352,642354,208–0.4%
Hyundai Group††67,66769,551–2.7%163,552177,808–8.0%
Isuzu683743–8.1%2,0071,80211.4%
Mazda32,92937,742–12.8%77,68979,076–1.8%
Mitsubishi10,75012,536–14.2%27,08231,645–14.4%
Nissan†††106,921111,119–3.8%269,745278,981–3.3%
Porsche2,4673,278–24.7%6,7778,229–17.6%
Subaru16,68518,027–7.4%40,88142,976–4.9%
Suzuki10,51011,030–4.7%26,43027,794–4.9%
Toyota‡217,729242,675–10.3%571,747605,855–5.6%
VW‡‡27,83225,8247.8%71,96772,445–0.7%
Other (estimate)6896624.1%1,9021,8612.2%
TOTAL1,357,2811,542,687–12.0%3,578,6803,889,565–8.0%
Numbers in this table are calculated by Automotive News based on actual monthly sales reported by the manufacturers and may differ from numbers reported elsewhere.
Source: Automotive News Data Center
Note: Other includes estimates for Ferrari, Lamborghini and Lotus; actuals for Maserati
*Includes Mini and Rolls-Royce
**DaimlerChrysler sold the Chrysler group on Aug. 3, 2007
***Incudes Maybach, Mercedes-Benz and Smart
****Includes Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo; Aston Martin's estimated sales are included through May 2007
*****Includes Saab
†Includes Honda Division and Acura
††Includes Hyundai and Kia<
†††Includes Nissan Division and Infiniti
‡Includes Toyota Division, Lexus and Scion
‡‡Includes VW, Audi and Bentley

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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