DETROIT – Automakers reported double-digit U.S. sales declines in March as demand for trucks and sport utility vehicles plummeted and consumers held back because of concerns about gas prices, the housing slump and tightening credit.
General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC both reported a 19 percent drop in U.S. sales Tuesday. Ford’s sales dropped 14 percent, and even industry stalwart Toyota was down 10 percent compared to last March. Nissan fell 4 percent, and Honda reported a 3 percent drop. “I’d like to be able to tell you that the worst is behind us, but I really can’t give you that assurance,” Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.’s sales and marketing chief, said in a conference call. Farley said Ford is concerned that the shrinking availability of consumer credit will continue to hurt sales and that the second quarter could be more difficult than the first.
Truck sales have been hurt by the slowdown in housing construction. Small cars fared best as consumers focused on fuel efficiency. Sales of the Ford Focus jumped 24 percent for the month, while Toyota’s subcompact Yaris saw sales rise 83 percent and Honda’s subcompact Fit surged 74 percent.
GM and Ford said consumers also are choosing more fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines over six-cylinder options. Ford’s top U.S. sales analyst George Pipas said 70 percent of Ford Fusion buyers are now getting the four-cylinder engine for the midsize car, compared to 60 percent at this time last year.
GM’s truck and SUV sales were down 22 percent in March while car sales fell 14 percent. New vehicles like the Chevrolet Malibu were a bright spot, with sales up 17 percent, but sales of Chevrolet pickups were down 25 percent while sales of GM’s gas-guzzling Hummer brand fell 29 percent.
A 24 percent jump in sales for Ford’s popular Edge crossover couldn’t make up for falling sales of pickups and large SUVs. Ford’s truck and SUV sales dropped 16 percent versus March 2007. Sales of the Ford Expedition SUV fell 34 percent, while sales of the F-Series pickup were down 24 percent.
Ford’s car sales fell 10 percent, dragged by declining demand for the Mustang and Crown Victoria.
Toyota Motor Corp., which moved past Ford to become the No. 2 automaker by U.S. sales last year, held onto its lead in the first quarter, outselling Ford by more than 43,000 vehicles. But Toyota took a beating in March, reporting truck and SUV sales down 14 percent and car sales off 7 percent. The Tundra pickup saw a surprising 17 percent sales increase, but totals were hurt by SUV sales, which fell 20 percent.
Chrysler’s car sales fell 13 percent and its truck sales plunged 22 percent, in part because it cut low-profit sales to rental car agencies. Chrysler saw no boost from its much-hyped, newly redesigned minivans.
Honda Motor Co., which had bucked the downward trend in February, saw its 3 percent increase in car sales eroded by a 12 percent decline in truck and SUV sales. That drop was led by the Honda Pilot SUV, which fell 24 percent.
Nissan Motor Co. reported a 10 percent increase in car sales, led by the subcompact Versa and the redesigned Altima. But Nissan’s truck and SUV sales plummeted 20 percent.