General Motors Corp. (GM) reported lower U.S. sales in March despite hopes for a recovery, while Ford Motor Co. (F) saw its sales of trucks and sport utility vehicles plummet. Meanwhile, some Japanese automakers posted record sales.
GM, the world's largest automaker, said March sales fell 1.3 percent and are now down 3.8 percent for the year. While GM was hoping for a stronger month, the numbers were better than February, when it announced a 12.7 percent decline and cut its production schedule.
GM got its biggest boost from truck sales, which rose 3.8 percent in March. GM said March marked the best month for full-size pickup sales since 1978. The Chevrolet Silverado (search) and GMC Sierra both had record months.
In a conference call, Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis, said GM was particularly encouraged by a 34 percent rise in retail sales from February and the uptick in truck sales, despite an aging lineup.
"I know it's popular to write the obituary on large trucks because of gas prices," Ballew said. "But it's very important for us to focus on the basic facts."
Ballew, however, acknowledged a sharp decline in demand for large sport utility vehicles, which he attributed in part to the growing number of choices of smaller SUVs and crossover vehicles.
Ford, the nation's No. 2 automaker, reported a 5 percent decline in U.S. sales for the month. Sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury trucks and sport utility vehicles, which have been the company's bread and butter, fell 6.6 percent in March and are down 7.9 percent for the year.
Ford's car sales were down 1.75 percent for the month but are up 5.1 percent for the year, helped by the hot-selling Ford Mustang. Ford also said the Mercury Montego sedan achieved its best sales since it went on sale last fall.
Ford's North American vice president Earl Hesterberg said higher gas prices "seem to be accelerating the demand for small and crossover sport utility vehicles."
Ford's overall sales of cars and trucks are down 3.8 percent for the year to date.
Toyota Motor Corp. (search) and Nissan Motor Co. (search) both reported record sales in March. Toyota sales were up 10.33 percent in March and 8.6 percent for the year, largely due to increased car sales. Toyota's new Avalon sedan went on sale in February, and the company said its Prius hybrid had its best-ever sales of 10,236 vehicles.
The contrast highlighted a long-standing trend in the U.S. auto industry where Ford and General Motors -- which are both losing market share to foreign rivals -- have been struggling to revive profits in their automotive operations.
"Spurred by escalating oil prices, the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles has definitely stepped up," said Jim Press, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.
Nissan sales were up 12.5 percent in March. Nissan, which posted a 33.3 percent increase in truck sales, said it was the first time it had ever sold more than 100,000 vehicles in one month.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.