US light vehicle sales blossomed like spring flowers in April as Americans bought or leased more than 1.5 million cars and light trucks. Adjusted for this year's extra selling day, that's up 1.8% from last year; enough to put automakers 1.2% ahead of the first four months of 2004.

April's SAAR came in at 17.46 million units, well ahead of the 16.62 million pace at this point a year ago, raising industry hopes of a 17-million-unit year.

Toyota and Hyundai set all-time sales records last month, with Lexus and Kia posting best-ever April results. More monthly records were set by Subaru, Honda and Acura, Nissan and Infiniti, and Mercedes-Benz, which got a nice boost from the new M-class SUV.

The good times continued to roll at Chrysler, which racked up its best April numbers in five years with all three divisions showing gains. The new Jeep Grand Cherokee brought home a 16% sales increase, becoming the only domestic full-size SUV to beat its 2004 pace. The Chrysler 300 beat its own outstanding mark from last year and the Pacifica, PT Cruiser and Town & Country posted double-digit gains.

While the sun was shining brightly on Auburn Hills, storm clouds were gathering over Dearborn and the Renaissance Centre where declining light truck sales brought Detroit's total share of the April light vehicle market to a record low of just over 56%.

The good news provided by decent retail passenger car sales was overshadowed by weak fleet sales, leaving Ford with a 2.4% deficit. Adjusted for daily sales rate (DSR), sales of the F-series pickup were also down slightly, but the real hurt came from the continuing decline of Ford's traditional SUVs. Dearborn's former gold mines are petering out, as witnessed by a 19% slump in April. Jaguar's 32.6% drop and a 4.3% hiccup from Volvo overwhelmed a 19.7% improvement at Land Rover, leaving Ford's overall totals down 5% in April.

Just like Ford, GM brought in good passenger car numbers. The new Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G6 and Buick LaCrosse posted encouraging, if not spectacular, sales. But sales of GM's truck-based SUVs were even worse than Ford's, dropping a DSR-adjusted 28.2% and delivering a solid hit to the General's bottom line. GM was left 7.7% short of its 2004 mark with a market share of just over 25%.

As GM is pinning its hopes on the upcoming line of full-size pickups and SUVs, there may be more trouble in GM's future. The trend in SUV sales we first reported last year has continued: monthly sales of domestic mid-sized and larger models were off 17.9% in April and are now down 17.7% for the first four months of 2005. Even non-domestic brands are feeling the pinch, down 7.0% in April and just 0.9% ahead of 2004 in year-to-date sales.

Though oil has begun to back off its record highs and petrol prices are starting to fall at the pump, a majority of American consumers are now giving fuel economy serious consideration in new vehicle buying decisions. Crossover vehicles present an attractive alternative to the big trucks, and this is an area where GM's product portfolio remains weak, especially in comparison to its non-domestic competition.

Bill Cawthon

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