Retail volume added a half-million light vehicles to first-quarter U.S. auto sales, providing all the growth in an unexpectedly strong first three months.
Although manufacturers this year matched unusually vigorous first-quarter fleet sales in 2010, industry gains came from a 27 percent surge in retail. Light vehicles sold through dealerships jumped 514,000 units to 2.5 million, according to internal documents from multiple automakers. Overall, industry sales grew 20 percent from January to March.
It's a reversal from the first quarter of 2010. Then, retail sales rose just 6 percent, but fleet volume soared 61 percent as corporate buyers made up for deferred purchases in 2009.
As Ford chief sales analyst George Pipas put it, "Fleets recovered before retail."
This year, retail led the way.
• The three that did best in retail in the first quarter -- Hyundai-Kia, Chrysler and General Motors -- actually reduced unit sales to fleets while their retail gains ranged from 35 percent for GM to 52 percent for Chrysler and Hyundai-Kia.
Big incentives fueled GM's retail gains in January and February, then its momentum cooled in March on reduced incentive spending. But GM still reached its goal, sales chief Don Johnson said in an April 1 conference call. "Our strategy early this year was to come out of the gate strong," he said. "We succeeded in what we set out to do."
• Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. was the only major player with better fleet than retail. Its fleet volume grew 22 percent while retail rose 11 percent. Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter said the first-quarter fleet mix was above Toyota's normal 8 to 9 percent of total sales because "fleets prefer their deliveries" early in the year. But, he said, "we will finish the calendar year where you have seen us in the past."
• At Ford Motor Co. and Nissan North America, retail sales outpaced fleet gains. At Nissan, retail rose 26 percent; fleet, 20 percent. Ford's retail sales rose 20 percent; its fleet volume, 8 percent.
Within Ford's fleet mix, cars declined and trucks increased despite a dip for Ford's fleet mainstay F-series pickup, Pipas said. "We've seen incredible gains in commercial and truck and van business," he said.
Domestic automakers, which dominate in large pickups and vans popular with commercial fleets, still have the highest mix of fleet sales.
But all three reduced their fleet sales mix in the first quarter. Ford declined to 34 percent from 36 percent of sales a year ago; GM, to 24 percent from 30 percent; and Chrysler, to 31 percent from 44 percent.
The Detroit 3's combined fleet units dropped 1 percent to 398,100. Their combined retail volume jumped 33 percent to 978,200.