US light vehicle sales in April fell to about 14.44m units on an annualised and seasonally adjusted basis according to Autodata Corp data. April’s market decline came against a backdrop of US economic worries and reflected a collapse in light truck sales.

The April light vehicle SAAR figure of 14.44m units compares with 15.11m units in March and 16.2m units as recently as December. It’s also 11.4% below last April’s number.

Autodata estimated that total light vehicle sales in April reached 1.25m units, a decline of 6.9% on the same month last year – but that percentage decline is distorted by more working days falling in this April.

Autodata’s figures also point to a huge drop in light truck sales. On a SAAR basis light truck sales declined to 7.02m units – 21.4% under last April’s level. The car market was actually slightly up on the same basis.

In terms of actual units, April sales of passenger cars were up 5.2% on last year at 655,432 units while light trucks were down 17.4% at 591,122 units.

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The April sales totals made grim reading for the Big Three, all of whom were hit by much lower sales of trucks.

On all light vehicle sales, GM was 16.2% off last year, Ford was down 12.1% and Chrysler was off 23.5% (Autodata figures).

Cars accounted for 52.6% of all light vehicle sales in April this year compared with 46.5% in the same month last year and small cars recorded a good month generally – Ford Focus and Toyota Yaris among the strong performers.

“Smaller vehicles are going over big,” said Toyota’s Jim Lentz. “With oil prices at record levels, compact cars and hybrids continue to lead the way.”

The Toyota Yaris reported best-ever April sales of 11,434 units, up 45.9% over the year-ago month.

Ford’s new Focus recorded 23,850 sales in April – 43.5% ahead of Focus sales last year – and Ford said its retail sales were up by 88%.

“Focus is the right car at the right time,” said Jim Farley, Ford group vice president, Marketing and Communications.

Ford also said retail sales for the company’s crossovers were 11% higher than a year ago.

“Consumer preference is shifting and we’re shifting with it as evidenced by our strong car and crossover sales. Our new products such as the Chevrolet Malibu, Cadillac CTS and Buick Enclave were hot throughout the month,” said Mark LaNeve, vice president, GM North America Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing.

“Throughout the industry, truck sales have been soft. We’ve been able to match the current economic slowdown with historically low total inventories, and as we look for ways to increase car and crossover production, we are improving our competitive position for the economic recovery,” he said.

Chrysler put a brave face on its 23.5% sales drop.

“The overall decrease in April sales, particularly of pickup trucks, demonstrates that the auto industry continues to be under pressure from the national economy,” Vice Chairman and President Jim Press said.

“Despite the economic challenges, and concern about rising fuel prices, we continue to hear from consumers that there is growing interest in vehicles that meet specific needs, such as the Dodge Journey seven-passenger crossover for families and the Dodge and Jeep fuel-efficient compact vehicles for young professionals. Our plan is to continue to focus on meeting customers’ needs, and managing our overall inventory to best weather this slowdown.”

In recent weeks, all major automakers have scaled back expectations for 2008 US auto industry sales and forecaster JD Power has estimated that the light vehicle market will come in at 14.95m units.

See also: GERMANY: US light vehicle market headed under 15m – JD Power