February US light vehicle sales were an improvement over January's results, but not enough to match the numbers posted in 2004. Ward's Auto tallied up just over 1.25 million sales, yielding an annualised sales rate of 16.30 million units which leaves automakers with a 3.6% deficit in year-to-date (YTD) sales.

There were new records set as Hyundai managed a 19% increase over February 2004. Close behind was Suzuki, up 17.6% and enjoying its best sales since 1987. New records were set by Toyota, Nissan and Kia. Strong sales of the new 911 boosted Porsche to a new February record, though Cayenne sales were down over 20%.

Chrysler continued to enjoy year-over-year increases as it bumped its share of the pie to almost 15%. The 300 helped set a new February sales record for Chrysler-branded vehicles and it enjoyed another month as the best-selling premium car in the US. There was smiles in Auburn Hills as the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country took the top two spots in their segment with better than 38% of total minivan sales.

Things weren't so rosy in Dearborn. Though it retained its longstanding title as America's best-selling vehicle, sales of the Ford F-series truck line continued to cool. Even an 8% rise in passenger car sales, led by the new Mustang, wasn't enough to offset a similar decline in light truck sales and Ford missed its February 2004 mark by about 3%, in line with analyst expectations.

If there was disappointment in Dearborn, there was anguish at the Renaissance Centre. General Motors' sales dropped 12.6%, a significantly poorer showing than had been expected. Truck sales were down 8.5% and sales of passenger cars nose-dived 17%, leaving GM with a market share just over 25% for the first two months of 2005. Adding insult to injury, Ford reclaimed its lead over Chevrolet and the Taurus regained its crown as the best-selling domestic brand car.

American tastes continue to shift away from traditional truck-based SUVs, even though the combined SUV-crossover segment claimed a slightly larger share of the total market. YTD sales of GM's midsize and large SUVs are down over 18% compared to 2004.

Sales of full-size pickups were also off last month in both volume and market share. It's worth noting the Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan combined claimed more than 10% of the segment.

From February 2004 to February 2005, the Detroit automakers lost almost 2% of market share to non-domestic brands. However, the Big Three did manage a slight improvement in their share of the passenger car market.

Luxury marques improved their market share over last year, though their piece of the action in February was smaller than in recent months. Lexus continued to lead the pack, followed by BMW and Cadillac. Mercedes has now fallen behind Acura in both monthly and YTD totals.

Next month is make-or-break for first-quarter sales. Look for automakers to pull out all the stops to beat the 1.5 million sales recorded in March 2004.

Bill Cawthon

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