The US car industry is relying more heavily on fleet sales to rental companies and other commercial fleets to prop up the market, the trade paper Automotive News reported, citing research that showed that, in the first three months of 2003, new vehicles registered by fleet customers amounted to 18.6% of the total.

In the same period the previous year, fleet customers accounted for 15.9%, the paper said, citing RL Polk data.

Automotive News said Buick, Mitsubishi and Suzuki were especially reliant on fleet sales in the first quarter with fleets accounting for 42.6% of Mitsubishi sales, 38.6% at Suzuki and 36.1% for Buick sales. All percentages were higher than year-ago levels, sharply so at Buick and Mitsubishi, the paper added.

Automotive News said the Polk data highlights the brands that may be most vulnerable to weakness in the retail market and added that commercial fleets are not expected to make up the difference as they have in the past.

The paper said the US rental industry, which typically accounts for half of total fleet sales, has become too weak to expand significantly, having downsized fleets as the travel industry shrank after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and not recovered.

Automotive News said that the import makes are claiming a bigger share of the fleet market – now 20% of U.S. fleet sales, up from 10 percent in 1998 – but the home-based Big 3 still dominate fleet sales.

Citing Polk data, Automotive News said commercial fleets accounted for 29.5% of Ford ‘s first-quarter sales while General Motors sold 21.8% to fleets and Chrysler group 24.0%.

In contrast, commercial fleets accounted for only 1.4% of Honda division’s first-quarter sales, Automotive News said.