May was a strong month for Fiat Chrysler, American Honda, General Motors, Kia and Subaru -- all of them grew U.S. sales. In contrast, Ford Motor Co., Nissan North America, Toyota Motor Sales and Hyundai fell.
Overall, the industry enjoyed the strongest sales pace in nearly a decade. The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate surged to 17.78 million from 16.52 million in April and 16.73 million in May 2014. That's the highest mark since the Detroit 3's employee-pricing deals drove a SAAR of 20.64 million in July 2005.
Pickup sales, of course, are benefiting from moderate gasoline prices and low interest rates that keep monthly payments for big-ticket trucks in affordable ranges. But one of the biggest and most surprising factors is the reincarnation of the compact pickup segment.
Not long ago, it seemed small pickups were fading away. The Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger were dropped. GM stopped making the Colorado and Canyon.
But GM launched all-new models late last year, and sales are surging. GM sold 8,881 Colorados last month.
"They're just flying out of here," said Sam Pilato, a partner in Dimmitt Chevrolet in Clearwater, Fla. "We have less than a 10-day supply. Colorado is our No. 1 inventory anxiety right now."
The Toyota Tacoma also had a strong month: Its sales rose 26 percent to 17,520. Total compact pickup sales increased 69 percent to 34,741.
Analysts noted that smaller pickups play at a much lower price point than full-size pickups, with base prices typically starting anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 below those of larger trucks. As a result, the smaller trucks appear to be luring different types of consumers rather than eating into sales of full-size pickups. The suburban cowboys who just like driving pickups for personal use are coming back to the smaller trucks, analysts said.
Pilato said a good number of buyers are trading in sedans for Colorados. "We're getting personal-use buyers," he said. "We're getting millennials."
Ford, meanwhile, is scrambling to boost production of its aluminum truck. One of two F-150 plants is in its final month of ramping up production, and a shortage of high-strength steel frames built by a supplier in Kentucky has slowed output at both plants.
The frame shortage has limited supplies further, forcing Ford to cancel some overtime shifts and send workers home early on multiple occasions in the past few months.
"If you think about all the complexity, cab types and bed sizes, and take that across 3,000 dealers ... that's going to limit our opportunities in the market," Ford's U.S. marketing, sales and service chief, Mark LaNeve, said in a conference call last week. "May was the low point, and it gets better every month from there."
LaNeve said the F-150 ramp-up plan called for inventories to hit their lowest levels in May. Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of the Americas, also said in an April 30 interview that May was projected to be a low point for availability of the truck.
Facing tight inventories, Ford chose not to participate in Memorial Day-themed sales, LaNeve said.
"We feel good about our number given those constraints," LaNeve said.
"Later this year, we're going to really be able to run at the market with full availability."