“Damn the petrol prices, full-size ahead!” was the rallying cry of American consumers last month as they snapped up large cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles, writes Bill Cawthon.

While total sales of just over 1.5 million light vehicles were in line with market expectations, the mix was noteworthy. Sales of larger truck models were up almost without exception, led by the 80,056 Ford F-Series pickups that left dealer lots in March. In the meantime, sales of the smaller and entry-level cars one would expect to see improve were down.

Overall, March sales were up 3.8%, according to figures from Ward’s, putting the first quarter of 2004 about 3.9% ahead of the same period last year. A majority of automakers beat their 2003 numbers, including Isuzu, which posted positive results for the first time in quite a while.

As the analysts predicted, GM and Ford were both in positive territory, by 6% and 2.3%, respectively. GM improved in sales of both passenger cars and light trucks, but the cars were the big story, up over 9.5%, led by a 32.5% jump in sales of Chevrolet cars. The Impala was the top-selling American car for the month. Ford, on the other hand, had good truck numbers, but was pulled down by soft sales of Ford and Mercury cars.

Chrysler was 2% off their mark from a year ago, but still reported strong light truck sales including a March sales record for the Dodge Ram pickup and improved sales of the Durango and Jeep SUVs. Ram sales were sufficient to boost it past the Camry to claim third place in monthly and year-to-date (YTD) totals.

By the numbers, Mazda posted the biggest gain, up nearly 37% for its best March since 1996. Volkswagen was the biggest loser, dragged down 19% by its aging core line-up.

Porsche, Toyota, Lexus, Acura, Nissan North America, and Volvo set monthly sales records. Lexus’ record has given it what looks to be an early lock on leadership in the luxury segment. Second-place BMW’s new 645Ci and X3 SUV helped the Bavarians to a small increase over March 2003. However, of the established lines, only the 5-series is showing improvement. BMW may want to revisit that decision not to sell the upcoming 1-series in the US if they hope to topple Toyota’s upscale brand.

Most luxury marques did well in March; in fact only Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz fell short of their 2003 numbers. Mercedes blamed model changeover for its 10% drop but promises another year of record US sales when the new C-class and SLK hit the market. This segment bears watching; premium vehicles now account for about 11% of total light vehicle sales, up almost 2% from 2001.

Honda and Hyundai lost ground in March. The Accord was less than 1,000 units ahead of the Impala as Honda Division dropped 8.4% in total sales. Hyundai is now down 5% in year-to-date sales.

Toyota and Honda sold 6,586 hybrid cars in March. That compares favourably to the 5,311 combined sales of the various Hummers, Ford Excursion and Cadillac Escalade ESV. Toyota is so confident demand will remain strong it has raised Prius prices by $US500 (£270).

The Scion line continues to perform well in its second month of broad-based distribution and should have no trouble meeting Toyota’s initial projections for the brand.

Looking at the overall market, 2004 is shaping up to be perhaps the best year since 2000’s record sales. Detroit’s share has dipped below 60% all three months of the new year and the Big Three are already piling on the incentives to ensure they get a good share of the spring sales bounty.

I was at a special preview for the Houston Auto Show last evening and had a chance to get a close-up look at some of the new iron coming our way and to watch the people as they toured the exhibits. There were trucks a’ plenty, but for the first time in quite a while, people were checking out the cars, long Motown’s weak suit.

With a new Mustang and a Hemi-powered Chrysler on the way, not to mention some good products in the pipeline from GM, Detroit looks like it may finally be able to defend its turf with more than just cash.

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