Like a lion, March auto sales went out with a roar. Automakers sold more than 1.57 million light vehicles as several brands set new records.

Even with 2005's extra sales day, Ward's notes the March totals passed those from 2004 by just under 1%. That translated into a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.85 million sales, the industry's best showing since December.

Nissan set a new record, becoming only the sixth automaker to sell a million light vehicles in a single fiscal year. Other big winners included Toyota, Acura, Hyundai, Porsche and Kia.

Chrysler marked another milestone by selling its 11 millionth minivan in March. To mark the occasion, the Chrysler minivans took the top two spots in their segment, as they have done each month since November 2004. The celebrations continued as Auburn Hills counted a full year of monthly sales gains, bringing in a 3.7% improvement with the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler 300 and Dodge Durango all beating their 2004 marks.

General Motors missed its 2004 numbers by 1.5%, but was pleased with its rebound from February's disappointment. The Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G6 and Buick LaCrosse contributed greatly improved sales while vans and pickups overcame the continued weakness in GM's SUV lines to give the General its highest market share this year.

Ford posted the worst performance of the Detroit automakers, slumping 4.9% as most of its SUVs took double-digit hits from changing consumer tastes and record petrol prices, but there was reason to cheer even in Dearborn.

Mustangs continue to sell well and the Five Hundred looks to be finally hitting its stride. Adjusted for daily sales rate, F-series sales were down slightly, but Ford's flagship model remained the overall market leader.

Toyota had its best-ever sales month as both divisions set new records. The Tundra full-size pickup set a March sales record, as did Toyota's passenger car line.

While it couldn't join Acura in setting a new monthly record, Honda division made up for some turf lost earlier, taking its largest piece of the market in 2005. Improved sales for the Accord, Odyssey and Pilot, combined with a nice debut from the Ridgeline pickup, gave Honda a 7% improvement over March 2004.

Porsche's new 911 set a March sales record. Boxster and GT sales also improved, making up for a big drop in Cayenne numbers.

BMW reported record sales for the Mini and improved numbers for its SUVs while coming up light in the car department. BMW blamed the shortfall on an inventory shortage in preparation for the launch of the new 3-series.

Reversing their big gains in the last three months of 2004, premium brands have taken a smaller piece of the pie each month in 2005. Luxury vehicles accounted for just over 10% of light vehicle sales last month, their smallest share since September.

The Detroit automakers managed to regain some of the overall market share they had lost to the imports, but gave up more ground in passenger cars.

March's improvement wasn't quite enough to put the industry in the black for the first quarter, but it erased a large part of the January-February deficit.

Ward's 10 Best Selling Cars and Trucks
3 Months 2005

  Cars   Trucks  
1 Camry 98,504 Ford F Series 189,408
2 Accord 77,371 Silverado 159,321
3 Malibu 76,272 Ram Pickup 89,057
4 Corolla 67,239 Explorer 62,586
5 Impala 64,328 Caravan 57,665
6 Altima 61,468 Sierra 50,869
7 Civic 59,255 TrailBlazer 47,558
8 Taurus 55,114 Grand Cherokee 47,114
9 Focus 46,666 Escape 44,099
10 Mustang 42,261 Town & Country 43,849
Note: Table combines imports and domestics.
Source: Ward's AutoInfoBank WardsAuto.com
© Copyright 2005, Ward's Communications, a division of PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. Redistribution prohibited.

Bill Cawthon