Ford Motor Co. was the top-selling automaker in the U.S. last month for the first time in five years, outselling General Motors by 936 light vehicles. Fleet sales made the difference, with Ford’s rising 39 percent and GM’s dropping 13 percent.
Ford sold 14 percent more crossovers and SUVs than a year ago, while sales of pickups and vans rose 11 percent. Its car sales declined 1.6 percent.
Fleet accounted for 37 percent of Ford’s sales in March, up from 29 percent a year before. Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president for U.S. marketing, sales and service, said Ford’s fleet orders are tilted heavily toward the early months of this year and will end 2016 at roughly the same level as in 2015.
Retail sales declined 5 percent from a year ago, though the automaker said its average transaction price increased more than $1,600.
Overall, Ford Motor’s sales rose 7.8 percent in March and 8.4 percent in the first quarter. The last time Ford surpassed GM in a month was March 2011, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
The fact that car sales are still decreasing in spite of a surge in fleet deliveries suggests that some of Ford’s car volume could see significant weakness later in the year when fleet is reduced. But given the strength of Ford’s trucks and SUVs and the outsized margins those vehicles generate, the continuing shift in consumer demand toward larger vehicles is not a major detriment to Ford, LaNeve said.
“From our standpoint, it’s a very positive trend as we have very strong segmentation in SUVs and trucks,” LaNeve said on a conference call with analysts and reporters. “We see that as good for overall business but obviously something we keep an eye on as far as inventory.”
Ford said it has an 80-day supply of vehicles, down from 87 days in February but up from 68 a year ago. Car inventories fell 5 percent in the past month and are up less than 1 percent from March 2015. Trucks accounted for most of the increase in inventories, with the F-150 now in much greater supply because production was slowed a year ago by the changeover to the new, aluminum-bodied version.
Lincoln sales rose 11 percent in March and 16 percent in the first quarter.
Ford Motor’s biggest gainers in March were the Lincoln MKX crossover, up 88 percent, the Ford Transit van, up 53 percent, and the Ford Edge crossover, up 49 percent. Sales rose for every utility vehicle except the Expedition and Lincoln MKC.
The Ford brand sold a record 188,100 utilities in the first quarter, up 15 percent.
Sales of the F series increased 9.1 percent in March to 73,884. LaNeve said the average transaction price for the F-series rose $1,500 from a year ago. F-series sales have risen 5 percent so far this year.
The higher F-series inventories mean Ford has been able to sell more to commercial customers. Ford said its commercial sales — mostly the F-series and Transit — rose 23 percent from a year ago and accounted for 14 percent of the month’s total.