March vehicle sales were still bad, but automakers expressed some cautious optimism Wednesday after the monthly tally showed a smaller year-over-year decline than most had been expecting and an improvement over February’s dismal numbers.
U.S. car and truck sales totaled 857,735 units last month — a 24 percent improvement over February’s total, but 36.8 percent less than the 1,356,926 vehicles sold in March of 2008.
Analysts had been expecting March to be much worse. Just a day earlier, some were predicting an annualized selling rate of 8.9 million units, but it came in at 9.9 million. “We are starting to see some signs of life in the March numbers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that February was the bottom,” said Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for Edmunds.com.
“We’re going to need to see at least three months of consecutive improvement.”
Some automakers were not willing to wait that long.
“We’re maybe starting to put the bottom of this in our rear-view mirror,” said Mark LaNeve, vice president of North American sales for General Motors Corp.
“I think we have the worst behind us … I look for April to be a little better than March.”
GM sales fell 44.7 percent in March, compared to the same period a year before. Its share of the U.S. market declined from 20.7 percent to 18.1 percent.
Chrysler LLC reported a 39.3 percent decline in sales, which left it with 11.8 percent of the U.S. market, compared to 12.3 percent a year ago.
“The bad news waterfall has stopped,” said Chrysler Vice Chairman Jim Press.
“It’s a teeny sign of light, a seedling to nourish.”
Ford did the best, Toprak said.
While Ford’s sales were down 40.8 percent year-over-year and it lost another point of market share, he said the automaker posted the biggest percentage gain over February’s totals of any manufacturer, and did it with substantially lower incentives than its domestic rivals.
Ford offered an average of $3,675 per vehicle in incentives — more than $1,000 less than GM or Chrysler, though higher than the average incentive of $1,628 for the three Japanese automakers.
“The market is very challenging, but with the things we can control at Ford we’ve had a lot of success,” said Jim Farley, Ford’s global head of sales and marketing.
“We’re seeing a lot more cash buyers,” he said, noting that used vehicle prices also rose in March.
“That’s an important leading indicator in our business.”
Toyota Motor Corp. saw its March sales drop 39 percent year-over-year, and its share of the U.S. market fell from 16 percent to 15.5 percent.
Honda Motor Co.’s sales were down 36.3 percent, but its market share increased slightly to 10.3 percent from 10.2 percent.
Nissan Motor Co. reported a sales drop of 37.7 percent. It lost a tenth of a point of market share, slipping to 7.8 percent from a year ago.
Korea’s Kia Motors Co. posted the smallest decline in March at just .6 percent, and its share of the U.S. market increased from 1.8 percent to 2.9 percent.
Toprak said March sales are, on average, 20 percent higher than February’s, largely because the warming weather brings out buyers. But this year, March sales were up more than 24 percent.
“Having the market trundle along at a 9.6 (million) rate is not a very satisfying situation for the entire industry, let alone a company like ours with the situation we’re in,” Toprak said in an interview with The Detroit News. “So it was nice to see.”