April US light vehicle sales caught industry analysts by surprise. Instead of the 3-5% percent volume increase they believed would be driven by tax refunds and incentives, the total came to about 1.423 million units, an increase of 0.8%, based on manufacturers reports. Instead of the predicted 16.9 million-unit seasonally adjusted annual sales rate, the actual rate was looking more like 16.4 million cars and light trucks.

In the aftermath, the analysts are already blaming the shortfall on the fact some manufacturer had reduced incentives and rising fuel prices, though both had been factors all month long.

Incentives may not be the whole issue, however. A second surprise came from General Motors, which was a day late in releasing figures due to an end-of-month computer problem. The consensus among the seers was GM would have the strongest showing of the Detroit carmakers, primarily because of its very aggressive truck incentives. Instead, that honour went to Chrysler, which gained 3%, based on reported sales volume. GM sales were basically flat, up just 0.04%, and Ford domestic brands were down almost 4.6% due to weakness in light trucks and double-digit drops in sales of Lincoln and Mercury passenger cars.

While overall industry sales are up just over 3%, Ford is now in the red in the year-to-date (YTD) accounting. GM and Chrysler are ahead by 3.4% and 2%, respectively.

Ford’s new F-Series pickups were yet another surprise: even though sales were up 1.7%, those numbers were well short of expectations. However, in this Ford was not alone: sales of the Chevy SILVERADO and Dodge Ram also missed their 2003 marks as total pickup sales dropped slightly.

Chrysler’s good news was driven in part by strong sales of its new rear-wheel-drive 300, which trebled the April 2003 sales of its predecessor. The Wrangler, smallest of the Jeep models, also performed well, with a 53% increase over last year for its best sales month in history.

Another small SUV was a bright spot for Ford. While sales of all Ford’s mid-size, full-size and oversize models dropped dramatically, the Escape came in with an almost 50% increase.

Petrol prices may be more of a factor than many in the industry are willing to admit. A recent survey indicated at least some Americans are worried about higher fuel costs with about one in seven new car buyers saying their choice had been affected by prices at the pump. This in turn seems to have affected the market for sport-utility vehicles.

While many of these customers may have simply selected a smaller model, it’s worth noting the SUV market share has been shrinking steadily since hitting a high of 29.6% of the total market in January 2004, just as rising prices began to capture the attention of the media. In April, the SUV share was 26.3 percent of new vehicle sales. Last month, almost without exception, the numbers for the all the large American SUVs declined. Despite an aggressive promotional campaign and new incentives, YTD sales of GM’s egregious Hummer line are now down 24.6%.

With petrol prices likely to rise even further in the summer months to come, this trend bears watching.

Though sales of passenger cars have rebounded slightly, the big beneficiary of the move away from sport-utility vehicles has been the minivan. That’s good news for DaimlerChrysler; their segment-leading Caravan posted a 25% improvement in April and now has a comfortable lead over the second-place Toyota Sienna. Based on sales during the first four months of 2004, Chrysler Group minivans command about a third of the market.

Analysts correctly predicted imports would increase their share of the market. Non-domestic brands picked up just over another point, compared to April 2003, and seem to have a lock on at least 40 percent of total light vehicle sales. Several brands, including Toyota, Lexus, Acura, Hyundai, Porsche and BMW posted new records as they extended their control of the passenger car market to about 56%.

Thanks to new incentives, Volkswagen posted improved results last month, as it was once again the best-selling import brand, a title it had yielded to BMW in recent months. On the other hand, Mitsubishi, already staggering from DaimlerChrysler’s recent decision to not make additional investments, saw sales drop by over 34% last month.

Lexus kept its place at the top, a scant 146 sales ahead of BMW, but there were some big shake-ups in the luxury segment in April, especially for Detroit nameplates. Cadillac tumbled to fifth place, behind Acura, for the month. It is still third in YTD sales, but is just 50 sales ahead of Mercedes-Benz. Lincoln fell to eighth place behind the resurgent Infiniti for the month, though it is still slightly ahead in total 2004 sales. Volvo has now passed Lincoln to become Ford’s best-selling premium brand.

In terms of the overall market, the leader remains the Ford F-Series pickup. It’s still early yet, but the records of the F-Series and Toyota’s Camry already look like they will repeat their performances as best-selling light truck and car. YTD sales of the Accord, on the other hand, are down almost 10% as Honda reported an overall 2.4% decline in spite of good sales from Acura.

Thanks to a 10% tumble in Impala sales, Ford’s venerable Taurus regained its position as the top American car both for the month and in YTD sales.

The US economy continues to improve and there are finally welcome signs of at least some new hiring by American businesses. Plus, there are more new products in the pipeline. Having had a chance to take a close look at several of these, I think there should be at least a few hits in store for new car buyers. April may prove to be simply a one-month setback in the auto industry’s efforts to recapture the 17-million-unit volumes of just a few years back.

Bill Cawthon