German luxury brands and just about everybody's high-end sport-utilities are where the action is this year, as May sales show.
Overall, light-vehicle sales fell to 1,406,763 in May, 5.8 percent below a strong year-ago month, dragged down by an 11.5 percent drop in car sales. Light-truck sales climbed 2.2 percent.
For five months, light-vehicle sales of 6,329,248 are only 1.7 percent behind the year-ago period. Cars were off 5.1 percent, and trucks up 2.8 percent.
The Toyota Camry was off 13.3 percent in May, compared to an exceptionally strong year-ago month, but it retained the best-selling car slots for the month and year to date. The front-runners of the previous four years, the Ford Taurus and the Honda Accord, were both down for May and for the five months.
Big 3 highlights and lowlights included:
Chrysler Corp. truck sales fell steeply, partly because of a strike. Car sales also were off, so Chrysler dropped 1.9 points of light-vehicle share for the month, to 14.5 percent. Sales were down 16.6 percent for the month and 8 percent for the year to date.
Ford Motor Co. set a light-truck sales record for any month, but the company's sales slipped 3 percent in May. However, that represented a 0.8 point gain in share, to 25.6 percent of the market.
General Motors sales dropped 8.3 percent for the month, including a 16.7 percent fall-off in car sales. But trucks rose 5.2 percent to set a sales record for any month. The drop in car sales was partly because of a strike.
Car-truck substitution doesn't mean cars are on the way out - not if your name is Mercedes, BMW, Audi or Porsche. Those brands posted big gains for the month, and year to date.
For the domestic luxury brands, Cadillac sales are flat for the year, although they improved in May with help from the Catera - another German import - and a sweeter lease deal on the Seville.
'Things seem to get better after April 15. We have started a reasonably strong spring selling period, and we've got advertising that's getting us good share of mind,' said Frank Cadicamo, Cadillac assistant general sales manager.
Cadillac's May sales were up 6.4 percent, including more than 95 percent retail sales, as opposed to less profitable fleet sales, the division said.
Lincoln was down 9.7 percent for the month and 10.6 percent for the year. George Pipas, Ford Motor Co. sales reporting and analysis manager, said Lincoln should soon make the luxury market more of a horse race with new models like the Navigator sport-utility to be introduced July 1, plus a new Town Car and a facelifted Continental later this year.
EUROPEANS ARE HOT
Meanwhile, he acknowledged, the Europeans have been the big winners in the luxury segment.
Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc., up 27.2 percent in May and 25.5 percent for the year to date, set a sales record for the month. The all-new SLK230 roadster, which was not on sale a year ago, contributed 536 sales in May and 2,568 for five months. The Mercedes M class sport-utility, which debuts this fall, is expected to help Mercedes top 100,000 sales this year for the first time.
Rival BMW is well on its way to a second consecutive yearly record - year-to-date sales are up 31.6 percent, to 51,366, and BMW is 1,477 ahead of Lincoln. BMW of North America Inc. broke 100,000 for the first time; the company was halfway there this year after only five months.
May sales were up 17.5 percent from last year. The Z3 roadster contributed 1,642 sales in May, up 17 percent from a year earlier, and 9,258 for the five months.
Land Rover North America Inc. reported record May sales of 2,255, up 39.6 percent from last year. It was Land Rover's second record month in a row, but five-month sales were off 0.8 percent (71 vehicles).
PORSCHE, AUDI SHINE
Porsche was up 59.7 percent for the month and 92.5 percent for the year to date.
Audi sales rose 45.1 percent over the same month last year, and the company said it has had year-to-year increases in 29 of the last 30 months. The company said 74 percent of all Audi customers bought Quattro all-wheel-drive vehicles in May. At 13,795, Audi's five-month sales were 31.1 percent over last year.
The strong demand for luxury imports did not extend to the Japanese marques, however.
Lexus sales were down 13.5 percent from a strong 1996 month, despite record May sales for the new ES 300. Spokesman Mike Michels said Lexus had only a two-day supply of ES 300s. Year to date, though, Lexus is still up 18.5 percent.
Similarly, Infiniti car sales slid 21.5 percent in May. But the addition of the QX4 sport-utility to the lineup pushed total sales 12.3 percent ahead of the year-ago month.