DETROIT – Automakers, using heavy discounts to lure consumers at a time of surging gasoline prices, posted mostly strong U.S. sales results in May even for some gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs.
The winners, among Detroit's fiercely competitive car makers, included General Motors Corp. (GM), which said its sales rose a steeper-than-expected 6.5 percent, buoyed by an 11 percent gain in truck sales.
DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Chrysler division said its May sales rose 5 percent, meanwhile, lifted by demand for the Chrysler 300, the company's new flagship sedan.
Ford Motor Co. (F), hurt by an aging vehicle lineup that has driven its sales lower all but one month so far this year, said its May sales fell 3.1 percent. On an adjusted basis the No. 2 U.S. automaker posted a 1 percent gain in sales, however, after accounting for one fewer selling day in May this year and excluding its foreign brands Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover.
With all leading companies reporting by Wednesday afternoon, Paul Ballew, GM's head of market and industry analysis, said he saw industrywide May sales coming in at a stronger-than-expected seasonally adjusted annual selling rate of 17.8 million units.
That would be up from a disappointing rate of 16.4 million in April and 16.3 million in May last year, and much stronger than industry analysts had anticipated.
"It was a good month, a very strong month for the industry," Ballew told reporters and analysts on a conference call
May started where April ended, with slow sales in much of the country, amid fears that gas prices and pain at the pump could hurt vehicle sales. Rising interest rates and the debt-heavy position of many potential car buyers were also seen as factors deterring sales.
But automakers responded by ratcheting up already high consumer incentives, particularly on big pickups and sport utility vehicles, sacrificing profits to help cut bloated inventories.
Among foreign brands, Toyota Motor Corp. (search) and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (search) both posted double-digit sales increases in May, with Toyota saying it was its best month ever after 47 years in the U.S. market.
Some car dealers have said record high gas prices were prompting consumers to trade in large SUVs or pickups for cars, while raising interest in buying fuel efficient gas-electric hybrid vehicles.
Nearly 50 percent of consumers in a survey released on Wednesday by Harris Interactive (search) and Kelley Blue Book (search) said the high price of gasoline was now playing a role in deciding what new vehicles to buy. It also said interest in hybrids doubled from 4 percent of buyers to 8 percent over the last month.
But senior GM officials played down the effect of gasoline prices.
"There is no trend away from large sport utilities with big V-8 engines," GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told reporters at the company's annual shareholders meeting in Wilmington, Delaware.
"So far, people are really buying more trucks, more SUVs, than they ever have," added GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner.
Sales of GM's gas-thirsty Hummer H2 (search) were down more than 31 percent in May. But many other full-size SUVs and trucks from GM posted gains, with total SUV sales jumping 19 percent.