It has finally happened.
In what is sure to be a psychological blow to Detroit, foreign-based auto brands have surpassed traditional domestic brands in U.S. retail sales, according to the latest vehicle registration data from R.L. Polk & Co.
Through May, 52.9 percent of the new vehicles registered by purchasers were import brands, up from 49.0 percent a year earlier. If the trend holds, this will be the first year that import brands generate the majority of U.S. retail sales.
Retail registrations of domestic brands totaled 2,554,636 through May, down 7.2 percent compared with the same period in 2005. Meanwhile, registrations of import brands rose 8.2 percent to 2,864,409 units.
The shift in retail share has been sharp - almost precipitous - and the downturn has hit Big 3 brands across the board. Lincoln and Hummer are the only domestic brands that enjoyed higher retail registrations through May.
Among import brands, the six biggest gainers were Toyota, Volkswagen, Land Rover, Porsche, Mercedes and Suzuki.
The Polk data does not include fleet registrations, which cover the sales of vehicles to corporate fleets and daily rental companies. If fleet sales are included, the Big 3 brands collectively generated 54.7 percent of total U.S. registrations through May.
Fleet sales tend to be less profitable and may mask how well an automaker is doing with average consumers. "We feel retail registrations are a good indicator of what the natural marketplace is demanding," said Lonnie Miller, Polk's director of industry analysis.
The ascendancy of the import brands has been building for many years, Miller said. "I'm not terribly surprised, given the trend," he said. "The imports were on (the Big 3's) heels and were getting closer and closer."