Ford's U.S. sales dropped 14 percent, Toyota's fell 10 percent and Honda's slipped 3 percent in March as demand for trucks and sport utility vehicles plummeted amid high gas prices and a slowdown in home construction.
Consumers' worries about the economy were expected to make March one of the worst months for automakers since 2005, when a wave of summer discounts led to a huge drop in fall sales. Automakers reported sales Tuesday.
A 24 percent jump in sales for Ford's popular Edge crossover couldn't make up for falling sales of pickups and large SUVs. Ford's truck and SUV sales dropped 16 percent versus March 2007. Sales of the Ford Expedition SUV fell 34 percent, while sales of the perennially popular F-Series pickup—which will be replaced with a new version this fall—were down 24 percent.
Ford's car sales were down 10 percent, dragged by declining demand for the Ford Mustang and Crown Victoria sedan. Ford's overall sales for the first quarter were down 9 percent.
"I'd like to be able to tell you that the worst is behind us, but I really can't give you that assurance," Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.'s sales and marketing chief, said in a conference call with reporters and analysts. Farley said Ford is concerned the shrinking availability of consumer credit will continue to hurt sales and that the second quarter could be more difficult than the first.
Toyota Motor Corp., which beat Ford to become the No. 2 automaker by U.S. sales last year, held onto its lead in the first quarter, outselling Ford by more than 43,000 vehicles. But Toyota took a beating in March, reporting truck and SUV sales down 14 percent and car sales down 7 percent. The Tundra pickup saw a surprising 17 percent sales increase, but totals were dragged down by SUV sales, which fell 20 percent. Toyota's sales were down 6 percent for the quarter.
Honda Motor Co., which had bucked the downward sales trend in February, saw its 3 percent increase in car sales eroded by a 12 percent decline in truck and SUV sales. That drop was led by the Honda Pilot SUV, which saw sales fall 24 percent. Honda's sales were flat for the first quarter.
Small cars fared best as consumers focused on fuel efficiency. The Ford Focus saw sales jump 24 percent for the month, while Toyota's subcompact Yaris saw sales rise 83 percent and Honda's subcompact Fit saw a 74 percent jump.
Ford shares rose 11 cents to $5.83 in afternoon trading. Toyota's U.S. shares rose $2.11 to $103 and Honda's U.S. shares were up $1.02 to $29.83. Auto shares rallied along with the market amid optimism that the worst of the credit crisis has passed and that the economy is faring better than expected.
The Associated Press reports unadjusted figures, calculating the percentage change in the total number of vehicles sold in one month compared with the same month a year earlier. Some automakers report percentages adjusted for sales days. There were 26 sales days last month and 28 in March 2007.