Demand for cars decreased more than demand for light trucks in May, despite average gasoline prices that peaked at $3.98 per gallon nationwide.
Car sales dropped 5 percent in May while light truck sales dipped just 2 percent. Overall, U.S. light vehicle demand dropped 4 percent, the first monthly decline since August.
Year-to-date, light truck sales are up 16 percent through May from a year earlier, outpacing car demand, which is up 12 percent through last month.
Light trucks encompass pickups, vans, SUVs and crossover vehicles – segments that have typically suffered when gas prices rise.
But automakers are increasingly offering more fuel-efficient light trucks – notably car-based crossovers -- that feature gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains, turbo-charged gasoline engines, and diesel motors.
While Detroit and Asian automakers posted mostly lower light truck sales last month, European rivals enjoyed higher truck sales.
Mercedes-Benz's truck sales jumped 24 percent. At BMW, light truck sales increased 46 percent to 5,604 units, with demand for the redesigned compact X3 crossover more than tripling to more than 2,300 units.
Land Rover's sales rose 7 percent last month and are up 16 percent for the year.
Ford said sales of the redesigned Explorer -- featuring a new V-6 engine for 2011 and all-wheel-drive -- were up 135 percent in May, with 13,318 units sold. It was the best month for the Explorer in 47 months, the automaker said. Explorer demand is up 120 percent for the year.
The redesigned Grand Cherokee SUV – featuring more fuel-efficient V-6 and V-8 powertrains for 2011 – helped push Jeep sales up 55 percent last month.
The 2011 Ford F-Series pickup is also available with two V-6 engines for the first time in several years.
At Volkswagen of America, light trucks increased 20 percent in May. VW and Audi each feature fuel efficient diesel and hybrid crossover vehicles, including the Touraeg, Q5 and Q7.
VW said diesel-powered car and truck models accounted for more than 22 percent of its sales last month.