Pile the rebates high enough and Americans will happily ignore petrol prices. For proof, one need look no farther than General Motors ’ 6.5% sales improvement in May, which was built on an 11% surge in light trucks. New products with fuel-hungry Hemi V8s help, too. Just ask Chrysler , now enjoying their jump of more than 5%.

Rebounding smartly from a lacklustre April, US light vehicle volume totalled 1,626,250 sales in May. According to Ward’s, that’s a 7.3% improvement from the same period last year and enough to put year-to-date (YTD) sales 3.1% ahead of 2003 with an annualised sales rate of 17.8 million units.

New all-time sales records were set by Acura , BMW and Toyota , and best May sales were recorded by Honda, Hyundai and Suzuki , which is riding high on its new Daewoo-built sedans. Nissan-badged cars and trucks posted a 32.9% improvement and Volkswagen enjoyed a second month of sales gains with a daily sales rate (DSR) improvement of 4.3% driven by a renewed interest in its diesel models.

With a volume decline of almost 3%, Ford was the only Detroit automaker to come up short of its May 2003 numbers. But there was one less sales day this year, so the folks in Dearborn can claim a slight DSR improvement of 0.97% for their domestic brands.

Other brands missing their marks included Audi , Jaguar , Land Rover , Mercedes-Benz , Porsche and Volvo . Mercedes has now dropped to fourth in YTD luxury vehicle sales, behind Cadillac .

Isuzu , Mitsubishi and Subaru were the only Asian automakers to report sales drops.

While much is being made of the ability of SUV sales to overcome higher prices at the pump, it appears that two years of record spring prices have had a definite impact on sales of the larger models that has only been partially masked by escalating incentives.

Based on a multi-year analysis of manufacturers’ reported numbers, there is a trend away from big vehicles like the Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Tahoe and Hummer H2. Even with record incentives and generous discounts, total sales of large SUVs are down 4.71% from last May and sport-utility vehicles as a group claimed only 0.06% more of the total light vehicle market than they did a year ago, despite the addition of several new models.

Even the larger import SUVs, like the Toyota Sequoia and Porsche Cayenne, failed to beat their 2003 numbers. While the change is relatively small, this could present a problem for the Detroit automakers, which derive their highest profits from the big truck-based models. Especially if margin-eating incentives continue to be required to achieve the desired sales volumes.

After hitting a low of just over 40% in December 2003, passenger car sales have remained remarkably stable at about 45% of light vehicles sales in the first five months of this year. Compared with May 2003, car sales as a percentage of total light vehicle sales were down about 0.48%. This segment is still a tough one for Detroit; in May, the four top-selling cars were all Japanese brands.

The best showing by an American car was the Ford Focus’ fifth-place finish. In YTD sales, the venerable Taurus still leads all other American makes, though it has now dropped to fourth, behind the Camry, Accord and Civic.

That half-percent given up by passenger cars and a bit extra taken from pickups likely went to sales of the much-maligned minivan, which are up 11.9% compared to May 2003. It may be that consumers perceive the minivan offers many of the advantages of the sport-utility vehicle with the extra benefit of improved fuel economy. The Dodge Caravan still leads the segment with a 30,000+ unit lead over the second-place Toyota Sienna. There was a bit of a shake-up in May as the Honda Odyssey outsold the Sienna for the first time since September 2003.

The Ford F-Series pickup continues to top the truck charts, followed by the Chevrolet Silverado. The Dodge Ram stumbled for the second month in a row and dropped to fifth in overall sales. Sales of the big Nissan Titan continue to grow, but still pose little threat to the full-size American brands.

On the other hand, the Toyota Tacoma took the lead in compact pickups, beating the Ford Ranger by 696 sales. This is the second time since I have been keeping records that the small Toyota has done what GM has never been able to do and both times came this year. The Ranger still has a 7,100-unit cushion in YTD sales, but the powers-that-be at in Dearborn may want to consider updating their little truck, which is getting a bit long in the tooth. Tacoma sales are improving this year, while the Ranger is still in free-fall.

Lexus now has a commanding lead in the luxury segment, almost 15,000 sales ahead of BMW. Thanks to some well-received new products, backed by generous rebates and aggressive marketing, Cadillac is in third, followed by Acura and Mercedes. Lincoln outsold Volvo to be Ford’s top premium marque for the month, but still trails the Swede in YTD sales.

Recent announcements from OPEC hopefully will mean a break from the rapid climb in US fuel prices, but just how much relief will ultimately be realised remains to be seen. Most experts believe petrol prices will remain high for the rest of the summer. In addition, there is the wild card of terrorist activities in the Middle East and the uncertainty that creates in the oil futures market.

Pump prices notwithstanding, May sales were proof positive that there is lots of life remaining in the US light vehicle market and that, even if there are some shifts in buying patterns, the American love affair with the truck is far from over.

Bill Cawthon