DETROIT -- U.S. vehicle sales probably rose this month from a lackluster February but tracked a similar pattern, with Asian automakers stealing more market share from General Motors and Ford Motor Co., analysts said.
Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., which have been relentlessly increasing their share of the U.S. market at the expense of Ford and GM, are seen leading stronger results for most Asian automakers.
Ford and GM -- which recently warned of a loss in the first quarter and lowered its full-year earnings target by as much as 80 percent -- are expected to post flat to lower results as high U.S. gasoline prices are hurting sales of gas-thirsty sport-utility vehicles, analysts said.
"A particular concern has been the pronounced weakness in sales of mid-size and large SUVs," Standard & Poor's credit analyst Scott Sprinzen said in a statement on Tuesday.
The SUV segment has accounted for a highly disproportionate share of earnings at GM and Ford, S&P said in a report.
Overall, Wall Street analysts said they expect U.S. sales in March to range from a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.5 million to 16.7 million vehicles, compared with 16.7 million in March last year.
Auto companies are scheduled to report U.S. sales for March, which has one extra selling day this year, on Friday.
"I think it's going to be similar to last year," said George Pipas, Ford's chief sales analyst, referring to industry wide sales. Sales will improve from January and February as "we are putting more distance between ourselves and a very strong December."
Aggressive year-end consumer incentives pushed U.S. vehicle sales in December to an 18.3 million annual rate, the highest level since an October 2001 record.
Some analysts blamed strong December results for the disappointing annual sales rate of 16.2 million and 16.3 million in January and February, respectively.
TOYOTA, NISSAN HIGHER
Analyst forecasts for Ford -- where sales dropped for nine straight months through February -- range from an increase of 1 percent to a decrease of as much as 4 percent.
One analyst said high inventories of unsold cars and trucks may force Ford to cut its second-quarter production, which has already been set 1.2 percent lower from the year-ago level at 940,000 units.
Ford has kept production relatively flat despite inventories that were about 20 percent above average at the end of February, Merrill Lynch analyst John Casesa said in a note to clients.
"For this reason, we expect Ford to cut (second-quarter) production schedules as the quarter wears on," he said.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said that the world's largest automaker will post relatively flat U.S. sales for March.
"I think we're going to be just about even, our best guess at this point. Either a percent over or a percent under," Lutz said in New York last week.
But Jesse Toprak, a senior analyst with Edmunds.com, expects GM's sales to fall as much as 10 percent in March from year-ago levels, despite its "March Madness" sales incentives. The enhanced GM deals include additional cash rebates of as much as $1,500.
The Chrysler arm of DaimlerChrysler could fare slightly better than its larger Detroit rivals with sales up about 2 percent, driven by the success of the large 300 sedan, analysts said.
Japanese automakers -- Toyota and Nissan -- could see double-digit sales increases from a year ago, Toprak said.
Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., which expects to boost U.S. sales by 15 percent this year, will see sales rise 1.5 percent in March, according to Edmunds.com.