June brought good news to two of Detroit's Big Three vehicle makers, writes Bill Cawthon. Based on the daily sales rate (DSR), both Chrysler and GM were able to report gains over June 2002. Chrysler was the big winner with a 6.3% jump, well ahead of GM's 1.4% improvement. However, Ford posted a small decline of 0.2%.

Two fewer selling days in the month also put June's overall results ahead of 2002. Ward's Auto reported almost 1.474 million U.S. light vehicle sales, with a DSR 3.9% better than a year ago. However, actual volumes left vehicle makers with a slightly larger deficit than last month as year-to-date (YTD) sales are now more than 200,000 units off their 2002 pace.

Bucking the trend, several manufacturers racked up records in the first six months of 2003. Winners included Volvo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Honda. Honda and BMW also set new monthly sales benchmarks in June.

Lexus also had a record June, but it wasn't enough to stop BMW from reclaiming leadership among luxury makes.

Mercedes' June numbers included the Maybach brand for the first time. DaimlerChrysler expects to sell about 400 of the ultra-luxury, ultra-large saloons in the US. Chrysler also had a new product, the Crossfire, a Chrysler-Mercedes hybrid assembled in Germany by Karmann (which, by the way, also builds Kia's Sportage SUV for European sale).

Toyota also kicked off a new brand in the US in June. Although currently available only in California, the new youth-oriented, Generation Y-targeted Scions got off to a good start. So far, Toyota's edgy styling is paying off: two-thirds of buyers selected the boxy xB.

The Volkswagen Touareg SUV has now recorded its first sales in America. While a relatively small number left dealer lots in June, Volkswagen is hoping the new model will enjoy the success of the Cayenne, which accounted for over half of (joint development partner) Porsche's June sales.

As expected, the top three sales spots were occupied by the big pickups from Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge. But Chevy's Cavalier surprised more than a few people by taking fourth place and the top spot among passenger cars, 427 sales ahead of the Camry.

It's safe to say the SUV slump of the first quarter has ended as Ford and GM reported record sales for the first half of the year. The traditional favourites from Ford, GM and Jeep are still the leaders, but the newer CUVs are steadily claiming a bigger piece of the pie.

Chrysler's Pacifica seems to be hitting its stride, more than doubling its May sales in June, and the XC90 has been one of Volvo's best sellers since its introduction. The Subaru Forester had its best-ever month in June.

Along with the rise of the CUV, another interesting trend is the increasing popularity of AWD cars. Audi's A4 quattros are among its most popular models and sales of 4Matic-equipped Mercedes-Benz models set a new all-time sales record in June.

This bodes well for Ford's upcoming Five Hundred and suggests a way for Detroit to reinvigorate its passenger car sales. As the debate over fuel economy and SUVs shows no signs of abating, adding new functionality to family cars might be a strategy worth investigating.

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