Big Three sales slide continues

GM sales slowed more than expected in March, while declines at Ford, Chrysler slow; Big 3 still a majority of U.S. sales, though.

By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- U.S. sales at the traditional Big Three U.S. automakers continue to lose share to Toyota and other import brands in March, although sales at troubled Ford and Chrysler rebounded enough from weak February results to beat forecasts.

General Motors (Charts), the nation's No. 1 automaker, reported that it's U.S. sales slipped 4 percent to 345,418, a bit worse than the forecast of a 1.3 percent decline by sales tracker

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Meanwhile, Toyota Motor (Charts) saw its U.S. sales rise nearly 12 percent to hit a record 242,675 in the month, helped by strong sales of its fuel-efficient hybrids, along with a jump in sales from the introduction of its first full-size pickup truck.

Honda Motor (Charts) saw sales rise 11 percent to also top forecasts of only modest gains, as did rival Japanese automaker Nissan (Charts). Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia posted narrow gains.

Despite the gains by Asian rivals, the GM results, along with those at Ford and Chrysler, were probably enough to allow the traditional American brands hang onto more than 50 percent of U.S. sales, a distinction they were in danger of losing for the first time.

Ford (Charts) reported a 9 percent decline in sales to 264,975 vehicles. But the company had warned last week that it was looking a double-digit declines from what had been its best sales month of 2006, and sales tracker had forecast a 17 percent drop in sales for the nation's No. 2 automaker.

The sales represented a 26 percent jump from the weak February sales total.

Ford saw good sales from its crossover vehicles, which are a vehicle is similar to an SUV with a more car-like driving characteristics. But it saw a drop in sales for the nation's best-selling vehicle, the F-Series pickup. Sales of the F-series were down 15 percent from a year ago.

George Pipas, the Ford director of sales analysis, said part of the decline was due to the cuts in production of the F-Series last year in the face of soft sales, which left dealers with a 40 percent reduction in F-Series inventory than a year ago.

"Maybe we went too far with production cuts at end of last year," said Pipas. "Hindsight is always 20-20. But when you're down 40 percent in inventory, a 15 percent decline in sales doesn't look so bad."

DaimlerChrysler (Charts), which is weighing a possible sale of its North American Chrysler Group unit, saw that division's sales fall 4.6 percent to 206,435. had been looking for a 6 percent drop in the sales of the unit that includes the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands.

The March sales at Chrysler Group were up 18.3 percent from February's disappointing total.

Including DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes unit, the company saw overall U.S. sales slip 4.1 percent in March to 228,047.

Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for Edmunds said that of the Big Three, Ford had the best sales, thanks to its crossover vehicles. But he said the U.S. automakers are still having to use high incentives and fleet sales to support their overall market share, and that some of the gains being seen at Ford won't be enough to stem losses.

"I think the fact that Ford is doing well with introductions is good news, but where they make their real money is SUV's and trucks," he said. "While they have made some gains in cars and crossovers, that's not where the bottom line is for them."

DaimlerChrysler is set to hold its annual shareholder meeting in Germany Wednesday morning, and the industry will be waiting to see if executives give any clues for their plans for the Chrysler unit.

The company announced plans Feb. 14 to cut 13,000 workers and close several plants at Chrysler due to declining market share. The company also said it would entertain all strategic options for the division, which was seen as putting the unit up for sale. Top of page