Car sales in the US rose 0.6% (daily sales rate-adjusted) to 720,854 units, light truck sales (which includes SUVs, minivans and models such as Chrysler's PT Cruiser) were off 6.0% to 813,167 and total industry volume - both 'import' and domestic brands - fell 3.0% to 1,534,021, according to wardsauto.com.

Total sales of all domestic-brand light vehicles slipped 6.8% to 1,165,282 while the imports gained a healthy 11.2% to 368,739.

Year to date, now the first quarter of 2007 is behind us, overall US industry light vehicle sales are off only 1.3% to 3,872,526, so very basic math suggests roughly a 15.5m-unit year.

In cars, YTD, domestic volume slipped 8.2% to 1,225,235 while imports rose 17.1% to 565,353.

Imports are also continuing to nibble away at Detroit's light truck advantage, too. Domestic sales slipped 3.0% to 1,738,579 while imports, including the likes of Toyota's new Texas-built full-size Tundra (already being offered with incentives according to US reports), Nissan's Titan and Honda's Ridgeline, were up 10.1% to 343,359.

Given that 'light trucks' includes minivans, and that Ford has withdrawn from the segment and GM is currently re-jigging its model lines, it is perhaps not surprising the import brands - Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Kia all field good minivan models that seem to attract more favourable reviews from the US consumer press than the remaining domestics excepting the market-leading, and just-redesigned Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Caravan models - did well in this segment the first quarter.

Light trucks from all brands both domestic and import again dominated US sales in the first quarter of '07, with 2,081,938 sales (-1.1%, suggesting fuel prices are no longer much worrying buyers) while car sales were also off - 1.5% - to 1,790,588.

Crunching the Ward's data by manufacturer shows that Detroit's Big Three made no gains - their combined light vehicle total was off 9.6% to 807,547 units last month, for a 52.6% slice of the market, and down 7.9% to 2,060,491, YTD.

The Japanese and Korean brands gained 6.9% (647,229 units) in March and 8.1% (1,601,028) YTD while the Europeans were off 5.3% to 79,245 units last month but up 3.4% to 211,007 YTD.

Noteworthy gainers in the first quarter included Mercedes-Benz (+9.2% to 55,985), Mazda (+17.5% to 79,074) and recovering Mitsubishi (+23.2% to 31,645). Of those who more seriously threaten Detroit, Toyota was up 11.2% to 605,855 units, Honda sales rose 6.1% (354,208) and Nissan was up 6% to 279,026.

The Japanese Big Three's gains are no surprise - all have launched new or updated models in recent months and both Honda (CR-V SUV production in Ohio) and Toyota (that new San Antonio truck plant) have added US production to shorten supply lines and improve wholesale and retail inventory management.

By car model, Japan continued to rule: Toyota's Camry was first YTD, followed by Honda's Accord and Toyota's Corolla/Matrix was third. Detroit finally got on the ladder with the Chevrolet Impala fourth while Nissan's Altima was fifth.

But Detroit is still the truck king with Ford's perennial F-series at the top of that tree, 19,000-odd units ahead of GM's Chevy Silverado line and Chrysler's Dodge Ram. The redesigned Dodge Caravan minivan line was fourth and the GMC Sierra fifth.

And the Japanese? Honda's CR-V small SUV - now mostly US-built - was seventh and Toyota's rival RAV - which gets V6 engine and long-wheelbase options in the States - was ninth.

Graeme Roberts

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