You can thank the oft-maligned daily rental fleet segment for that surprising 13 percent surge in first-quarter U.S. auto sales.
"The first quarter was one of the biggest rental industries I've ever seen," said Jim Farley, Ford's global sales and marketing boss. "There's pent-up demand in the rental industry as well."
Overall fleet sales modestly outperformed the larger retail segment for the quarter, up 17 percent to an 11 percent gain for sales through dealerships. But government-sector fleet buying is stalled by state and local governmental budget crises.
Only "a one-time reload of the rental industry" fueled fleet in the first quarter, Farley said.
"Some of the Japanese brands have been selling 20 to 30 percent of their volume just to rental," he said, declining to name the brands.
Toyota and Nissan sharply increased fleet sales in the first quarter, and industry sources say other Japanese automakers did, too.
Nissan North America's fleet sales jumped 41 percent to 79,100 units, raising fleet to 25 percent of its first-quarter sales mix. Nissan's retail sales rose 6 percent.
Toyota Motor Sales boosted first-quarter fleet sales 38 percent to 73,900 units. That's 15 percent of total sales, up from a 12 percent mix a year earlier.
In February, Toyota Division boss Bob Carter said Toyota was making up for fleet sales it deferred last year to restock U.S. dealers post-quake. But Carter said Toyota fleet volume would ease later and end the year at its normal 10 percent or less of sales.
Beyond the Japanese, first-quarter fleet strategies were mixed.
Hyundai-Kia Automotive continued to reduce fleet volume. In the first three months, fleet declined 13 percent while retail jumped 27 percent, reducing fleet to 9 percent of the sales mix.
Ford also focused on retail, up 13 percent for the quarter, while fleet volume rose 1 percent.
But General Motors boosted fleet sales 16 percent while its retail volume fell 1 percent.
Chrysler Group was more balanced in a monster quarter. Chrysler fleet jumped 36 percent, but its retail gain was even greater at 40 percent. Its fleet mix remained at 31 percent.
Few automakers speak openly about the fleet side of the business, even though it accounts for roughly a fifth of U.S. light-vehicle sales annually.
But last month, Kevin Koswick, Ford's director of fleet, leasing and remarketing, discussed the sector for the Automotive Press Association in Detroit.
He said the 2011 industry fleet mix was 60 percent rental, mostly cars; 8.4 percent government, mainly police cars and trucks; and 31 percent commercial, mostly trucks.
And Koswick dismissed the notion that daily rental fleet sales are unprofitable.
"Fleet is a profitable business," he said. "All of it is profitable."
Bradford Wernle contributed to this report