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From the Detroit Insider:

Auto sales fall in March

Only BMW posts gain; figures for rental cars, fleets should boost the domestics.

Josee Valcourt / The Detroit News

U.S. consumers bought 13 percent fewer new cars and trucks during the first 12 days of March, a disappointing sign for automakers as they enter the important spring selling season, according to a survey released Monday.

J.D. Power and Associates' Power Information Network said every major automaker, aside from BMW AG, posted a decline in retail sales during the period. The survey tracks sales at more than 10,000 dealers nationwide and doesn't include sales to fleet customers.

Detroit's automakers fared worse than their top competitors. The Chrysler Group's sales fell 14 percent, and General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. fell 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively, according to the Power Information Network.

GM's retail market share fell to 21.3 percent from 23 percent before its new "March Madness" incentive program began.

Ford's market share dipped to 16.3 percent from about 17.6 percent, and Chrysler slid to 12.7 percent from 12.8 percent.

Luxury carmaker BMW was the only manufacturer to see a gain, with retail sales up 8 percent.

Toyota Motor Corp. fell into an unusual position. Its sales dropped by 9 percent but its market share jumped to 16.8 percent from 16 percent. Honda Motor Co.'s sales were flat. Hyundai Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. saw double-digit declines.

"It does not mean that the total month will end that way," said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at Power. "By the end of the month, the manufacturers generally add in their fleet sales. The domestic automakers have a disproportionately higher fleet mix, so that will bring up their share."

Paul Taylor, economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said fickle weather, particularly in the Midwest and on the Eastern seaboard, has kept people out of showrooms.

"The weather hasn't been conducive for most of the month," Taylor said.

"As a consequence, you'll see a stronger outpouring of customers when spring (temperatures) arrives."

Auto sales are up 3.8 percent this year, but analysts expect full-year demand to be flat or slightly weaker than 2005, which was the third-best year ever.

Although customers have trickled into Detroit-based Jefferson Chevrolet to check out GM's "March Madness" incentive program, the shift from mild to cold weather has dampened sales.

Showroom traffic this month has been "very sporadic," said Brian Tellier, general manager at the dealership.

He's counting on spring's warmer breeze for a boost. "Consumers will be a little more apt to kick some tires," he said.

Early look at sales
How retail sales in the first 12 days of March compare to the same period a year ago:
GM -20%
Ford -19%
DCX -14%
Toyota/Lexus -9%
Honda/Acura Even
BMW/Mini +8%
Hyundai -17%
VW -2%
Nissan/Infiniti -12%
Total Industry -13%
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