Automakers are blaming weather and concerns about war for poor sales in February, writes Bill Cawthon. Unusually heavy snowfalls likely bear part of the blame, but the ongoing economic malaise continues to be the main problem.

Ward’s Auto estimates automakers delivered just over 1.2 million cars and light trucks last month, yielding an annualised rate of about 15.5 million vehicle sales, down 4.5% from a year ago.

Ford was the only US car company to post improved numbers. Sales of domestic models were up 0.4% from February 2002. Among Ford’s upscale brands, Volvo and Land Rover showed improvement while Jaguar missed its year-ago mark by more than 32%.

GM reported its second straight monthly decline as incentives continue to lose their magic. Sales dropped 19% from last year’s record. GM sales are down almost 12% for 2003 and the company took another hit in light truck sales, down 21% in February. GM did escape a repeat of the thorough drubbing Ford administered in January, but the upcoming F-Series may well be causing some sleepless nights, especially as Ford says it will reduce margins to keep prices competitive.

Chrysler took a 4% hit as the Dodge Ram’s string of monthly sales improvements ended. However, it was not all gloom: the Dodge Caravan recaptured the minivan crown in convincing fashion, outselling the second-place Ford Windstar by over 10,000 units.

Full-size pickups took the top three sales spots. The F-Series’ grip on the top spot seems to be as close to a natural law as one will find in the auto industry, as is the Chevrolet Silverado’s position immediately behind. After that, February brought a few changes. The Dodge Ram moved up to third. Strong fleet sales made the Taurus the best-selling passenger car for the month. The Accord rounded out the top five.

Honda celebrated its best-ever February, while archrival Toyota’s sales dropped slightly, dragged down by another poor performance from Lexus. Toyota’s flagship marque seems to have hit rough waters, dropping behind both Mercedes and Cadillac last month.

Other brands with record February results included Mercedes-Benz, Saab and Kia. Subaru had its best February since 1986.

Sales of large sport-utility vehicles declined for a second month. GM’s big SUVs are more than 20% behind their record this time last year. Most of Ford’s big models and DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee are also off the pace. Some blame the deficit on especially strong sales last year, but that fails to account for continued growth by smaller SUVs and the new crossover vehicles. High petrol and retail prices may be making thirsty land yachts less appealing to consumers.

Based on incomplete numbers, it seems the Detroit automakers regained a bit of lost ground in February. Their share of the total market climbed back above 60% and they even claimed a small improvement in the passenger car market.

March came in like a lion, so perhaps it will go out like a lamb, giving manufacturers a chance to see if fair weather can give sales a boost.