What oil shock? Truck sales gain, cars fall

Most automakers post better sales of light trucks, weaker sales of car models, as GM opens lead on Japanese rival Toyota.

By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- In a weak month for auto sales, Americans turned back to light truck models in October rather than the car models that had been gaining ground - a shift that helped to lift the sales of General Motors ahead of its leading Japanese rival Toyota.

Some of the gain in truck sales was due to the growing popularity, and new introductions, of so-called crossover vehicles, a version of the SUV that has a more car-like ride, and better fuel efficiency, than a traditional crossover. GM's Buick Enclave and the Ford Edge are two vehicles in that category that were not available a year ago, and have seen strong sales.

And some of the drop in car sales is due to a deliberate decision by the U.S. automakers to cut back on less profitable fleet sales to businesses, particularly rental car companies. But while some fuel-efficient cars, such as the Toyota Prius, posted strong gains helped by increased production, others, such as the the Toyota Yaris, saw sales fall.

And buyers also bumped up sales of some models with relatively poor fuel efficiency - because of the convenience Americans have traditionally sought in makes like the new minivans from Chrysler LLC and new full-size pickups from Toyota as well as the Yukon and Tahoe SUV's from GM.

Overall GM (Charts, Fortune 500) posted a 3.4 percent gain in passenger vehicle sales compared to a year earlier, helped by an extra sales day this year.

GM saw a 5.8 percent jump in sales of its light truck models, such as pickups, SUV's and crossovers. That helped overcome a 0.7 percent drop in car models.

While GM sales were slightly below the forecast of sales tracker Edmunds.com, the sales trend toward strong light truck sales was a good one for GM, which depends far more on light truck models for its sales and profits than does its Japanese rivals.

Toyota reported essentially flat October sales. It sold 197,592 vehicles, a gain of 0.5 percent. Edmunds had been looking for a 6 percent gain at the Japanese automaker.

Car models, which make up a majority of Toyota's U.S. sales, saw a 1.2 percent drop in vehicles sold. But light trucks posted a 2.8 percent gain, led by a 20 percent jump in pickup sales due to strong sales of its Tundra pickup - its first full-size offering in that category.

Still even the essentially flat sales were enough to keep Toyota No. 2 in U.S. sales, ahead of Ford (Charts, Fortune 500), where sales fell 9.5 percent in the month.

The sales at Ford were not a disaster for the troubled automaker. It had seen much deeper sales declines in recent months. Sales tracker Edmunds .com had been expecting Ford to post a nearly 16 percent decline in the latest period.

In October, Ford reported it sold 195,462 vehicles. Sales of truck models edged up 0.9 percent, helped by strong sales of its crossover models.

Meanwhile sales of its F-Series pickup truck, a favorite of contractors that had seen sales hammered by the downturn in home building, were off 7.5 percent, but that was less of a decline than seen in August and September.

Sales of car models at Ford plunged 26 percent. Part of that decline was due to a strategy at Ford of cutting back on less profitable fleet sales to businesses, particularly rental car companies.

Chrysler bucked the trend in the month, as it saw its truck sales fall 14.4 percent, while car models saw a 12.2 percent gain. That left Chrysler's overall sales down 8.9 percent - or roughly twice the decline forecast by Edmunds.

But much of the shift at Chrysler was due to the timing of new models. The rollout of the new design of the Sebring brought that model a 138 percent jump in sales from a year earlier, when much of sales were limited to rental car companies. In addition, the Dodge Avenger, which was not available a year earlier, saw sales of 6,268.

But most of its light truck models were relatively old in the product cycle and have seen declining sales for some time. The company announced earlier Thursday it would halt production of the Dodge Magnum and the Chrysler Pacifica, crossover models that have long suffered from disappointing sales, along with the convertible model of the PT Cruiser.

Chrysler also announced earlier in the day it would cut up to 12,000 jobs as it eliminated shifts at some factories in an effort to bring its capacity more in line with demand for its products.

Ford and Chrysler continued to lose ground to other import rivals other than just Toyota. Honda Motor (Charts) posted a 3.8 percent gain in sales. It bucked the industry-wide trend in U.S. sales by posting a 14 percent gain in sales of car models, but its light truck sales fell by 7.6 percent. Nissan (Charts) reported a 13 percent jump in sales, led by strong sales in car models and a modest rise in light truck sales. But even with those gains, both Honda and Nissan came in a bit below Edmunds' sales forecasts for the month. Top of page