For three years, General Motors has finished second to Ford Motor Co. in light-truck sales.
That may change this year.
'There is a chance we may be able to regain truck leadership this year, and that hasn't happened since 1994,' said Michael DiGiovanni, GM's chief forecaster.
In the first five months of 1998, GM sold 47,237 more light trucks than Ford Motor Co. Last year at this time, Ford was 65,649 ahead of GM.
'1998 ain't over,' said Ford spokesman George Pipas. 'GM is trying to get as much mileage out of this as they can. They are ahead after the fifth lap. But 1998 has seven months to go.'
The GM-Ford truck battle rages amid booming vehicle sales. Chrysler Corp. sold more than 250,000 cars and light trucks in May, the first month it has ever done that.
Boosted by generous incentives, vehicle sales in May hit a hefty annual rate of 16.2 million. Various automakers reported eye-popping increases for the month, including Lexus, up 93.2 percent; Mercedes-Benz, up 60.3 percent; and Porsche, up 49.7 percent.
Three factors helped boost GM's truck share, DiGiovanni said:
1. GM's increased output of four-wheel-drive and V-8 engine components for full-sized trucks, including the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban and the GMC Sierra, Yukon and Suburban.
'We had too many two-wheel-drive and V-6 components on our full-sized pickups, for example,' DiGiovanni said.
Higher component output coupled with more truck assembly capacity at GM's Arlington, Texas, plant has fueled truck sales increases at Chevrolet, said John Middlebrook, Chevrolet general manager.
2. GM's new line of front-wheel-drive minivans.
'We weren't a player with the Chevy Lumina,' DiGiovanni said. 'We replaced a very unsuccessful product with a successful product.'
In the 1998 truck fight, GM made its biggest gains against Ford in minivans because Ford discontinued the rear-wheel-drive Ford Aerostar, and the 1998 Ford Windstar does not have four doors.
3. Larger incentives at the bottom end of the market.
'We learned in January and February we were not competitive in the low end of the market in both cars and small pickups. Now our small pickups are priced with the Ford Ranger,' DiGiovanni said.
Through May, GM's light-truck sales rose 11.8 percent while Ford's light-truck volume declined 1.3 percent. GM will have a hard time protecting its 47,237-unit lead. This summer, GM will change over most of its full-sized pickup plants to produce its redesigned 1999 truck. That will slow production and sales.
Also, Ford is battling back:
1. Ford has added 3,000 cars and 5,000 trucks to its second-quarter production schedule. Most of the additional trucks will be Explorers and Rangers because other truck lines already are running at maximum capacity, Pipas said.
2. The 1999 Ford Windstar bows Oct. 1 with a long-awaited fourth door. Windstar sales were off 8.3 percent in the first five months of 1998. Sales have suffered because the minivan is offered only as a two-door model, and four-doors are the big sellers.
3. The Ford Expedition XLT now has a $400 option package discount, the first discount on the full-sized sport-utility since it was introduced in October 1996. Expedition sales fell 21.8 percent in May and 10.8 percent during the first five months of 1998. (See related story, Page 56.)
GM and Ford are battling in a period of strong industry sales fueled by owner-loyalty discount coupons.
In May, industry car and truck sales rose 7.5 percent to 1,512,931. Car sales climbed 3.2 percent and truck sales surged 12.8 percent in May, compared with the same month last year.
Loyalty coupons are working but are not the sole reason for the sales increase, Middlebrook said.
Indeed, early research at Chev-rolet indicates that more than half of Chevrolet buyers are not using coupons, Middlebrook said.
GM ignited the coupon craze April 10. Ford and Chrysler followed.
Owners of GM, Ford and Chry-sler vehicles were sent coupons that are worth $500 to $1,000 on many products.
Middlebrook said he is not worried that strong incentives in May will rob future sales.
'We are definitely pulling some sales ahead because of the loyalty coupon, but we don't think that it is a huge amount,' he said.
Staff Reporter Ralph Kisiel and Intern Nick Twork contributed to this report