Monday, June 4, 2007

2007: US cars outsell trucks for first time since 2002

More cars than light trucks were sold in the United States last month, as gasoline prices soared to more than $3 a gallon.

Of the 1.56 million vehicles sold in May, 778,651 were cars and 777,296 were light trucks, including pickups, according Ward’s AutoInfoBank, which tracks industry statistics.

The last time cars outsold light trucks was in May 2002, according to Autodata, another statistics firm. But light trucks have routinely been outselling cars each month since 1997, when consumers’ tastes for big vehicles tipped the scales in their favor.

Toyota, Nissan, General Motors and Chrysler all said their sales rose in May compared with 2006, primarily because of stronger car sales. Toyota, which has benefited most among the major companies from the rise in gas prices, said its May sales set a monthly record, up 9.7 percent from a year ago. The Ford Motor Company was the only major player to be left out: its sales fell 11.7 percent from 2006.

Among the most popular cars, sales of the Honda Civic rose 32.6 percent in May to set a new record, while sales of the Chevrolet Impala rose 44.7 percent.

Sales of the hybrid-electric Toyota Prius rose 184.9 percent, according to Autodata. Dealers in parts of the country are again reporting waiting lists for the fuel-efficient model, even though Toyota has doubled production from last year.

But this latest shift does not mean Detroit auto companies are rushing to build more cars. Ford, for example, said it would build twice as many light trucks as cars during July, August and September.

One reason, analysts said, is that trucks are far more profitable than cars, with the typical midsize S.U.V. still generating about $4,000 a vehicle in gross profits, versus about $400 for a subcompact car.

But with SUVs falling out of favor, Detroit companies are heavily promoting crossover vehicles, which are sport utilities built on the underpinnings of cars, not pickups. Ford, in fact, has said its turnaround plan rests on the success of the Edge, a crossover introduced in December. It expects to sell about 120,000 this year.

Not all trucks are selling poorly. Sales of the Chevrolet Silverado rose 10.9 percent in May compared with 2006, outselling its biggest rival, the Ford F-series, whose sales fell 15.1 percent last year.

Over all, vehicle sales were up 0.7 percent from May 2006, according to Ward’s. Car sales were up 2.2 percent, while truck sales slipped 0.7 percent.

Despite a sales decline at Ford, the company is adapting to the buyers’ changing tastes, said its sales analyst, George Pipas. Three years ago, cars accounted for only 30 percent of its sales in the United States, but now are close to half. (info from The New York Times)

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