DETROIT -- Rising U.S. gasoline prices are hurting sales of large SUVs and pickups, according to some industry analysts, a trend that could stall a major engine of profits for Detroit's automakers.
The gas-thirsty, full-sized SUV segment lost 1.2 percentage points of U.S. market share over the last two months, and large pickups were down about 2 percentage points, according to Edmunds.com, which tracks the industry.
Fuel-efficient compact cars, on the other hand, gained 2.2 percentage points of market share in the same period.
Large SUVs and full-sized pickups account for close to 80 percent of North American automotive profits for Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, Deutsche Bank analyst Rod Lache said in a research note.
"The concern, of course, is that the slowdown in these categories may represent the beginnings of a structural change, perhaps sparked by consumers' concerns about higher oil or gasoline prices," Lache said.
The average price U.S. drivers pay for a gallon of regular gasoline barely exceeds $2, according to the AAA motor club. The price is expected to shoot to a record high of $2.15 a gallon this spring, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The higher prices already have hit GM's mix of vehicles in the market, punishing it by $1 a share due to fewer sales of large trucks and SUVs, Bank of America analyst Ron Tadross said in a research note.
Ford Motor, he said, also is being penalized 15 cents a share due to a similar decline in the segment.
GM's U.S. sales of light trucks declined 9 percent last month, while Ford Motor's sales in the same segment slipped 8 percent. Overall, both the automakers lost U.S. market share again in February.
But Joseph Barker, manager of North American sales analysis at CSM Worldwide, said it was too early to say if the fuel price spike was responsible for the lackluster light-truck sales.
"I wouldn't read too much into the first two months of this year," he said.
While sales of GM and Ford Motor trucks slipped in February, Toyota Motor Corp. and other Asian automakers reported increased sales in the segment.
U.S. sales of the full-sized Toyota Tundra pickup, which has a V-8 engine, rose nearly 49 percent last month, while Nissan Motor Co. chalked up a similar rise in sales of its Titan pickup.
The Asian automakers' reputation for quality may have helped them buck the industry trend.
Hurt by weaker sales, both Ford Motor and GM raised cash rebates this month on slow-selling models, including SUVs and pickups, to cut inventories of unsold vehicles.
In addition to higher cash discounts, Ford extended its offer of interest-free financing for terms of as long as 60 months on the Explorer SUV, which suffered a sales decline of 19.1 percent, and the Expedition SUV, which dropped 13.8 percent last month.
GM, meanwhile, said it will offer extended warranties on its 2006 model Hummer SUVs, which on average have a fuel economy in the midteens and whose sales have declined 8.3 percent this year.
"Whenever the gas prices go up, we see larger incentive spending by the manufacturers on large SUVs," Jesse Toprak, director of pricing and market analysis at Edmunds.com told Reuters.
The deterioration in the segment is also partly driven by growing popularity of car-based sport utilities, or crossovers, and due to the fact that some of the Ford Motor and GM SUVs are reaching the end of their life cycle, Toprak said.
"Unfortunately for GM and Ford, there are lot of exciting products right now out there in the marketplace," he said.