DETROIT – Detroit's Big Three is becoming Ford and the other two.
While its rivals stay afloat with billions in government aid, Ford grabbed a bigger slice of the American car market in April with record sales of its fuel-efficient Fusion. Those results pushed it past Toyota to retake its post as the nation's No. 2 car seller.
Even though Ford's monthly sales tumbled 32 percent from a year earlier, it captured 16 percent of the total market. Most of those gains came at the expense of General Motors and Chrysler, which unlike Ford are dependent on federal help.
Overall U.S. autoæsales reported Friday fell 34 percent from a year earlier. Automakers sold about 820,000 light vehicles in April, about 38,000 fewer than in March but still a big improvement over January's 27-year low.
"It seems we're bouncing on the bottom of the bathtub, but it's somewhat stabilized," Chrysler Vice Chairman Jim Press said in a conference call with journalists. "Maybe we've figured out where the bottom is."
Chrysler, which filed for a government-engineered bankruptcy Thursday, reported the sharpest decline among major automakers, falling 48 percent.
GM, the largest American automaker with 21 percent of the market, posted its smallest decline in four months at 34 percent.
Ford sold a record number of Fusions, 18,321, with the unveiling of its 2010 gas and hybrid versions of the car.
"Fusion appears to have broken the hold on the midsize sedan segment," said Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of sales and marketing. Ford began selling the Fusion in 2005 with its 2006 model.
Toyota Motor Corp., which had overtaken Ford as No. 2 in U.S. sales, fell behind its rival in monthly sales for the first time in months. Ford got a lift from its line of midsize cars that burn less gasoline.
Ford Motor Co. sold 133,979 light vehicles in April, compared with 195,665 for the same month of 2008. The figures exclude sales of heavy and low cab forward trucks. Sales rose from March to April, with Ford selling 2,878 more cars.
"Based on dealer commentary, we believe this was at least partially due to customers shifting to Ford based on concerns about a potential bankruptcy filing at General Motors and Chrysler," said Brett Hoselton, auto analyst for KeyBanc Capital Markets.
April marked the sixth time in seven months that Ford gained retail market share.
Chrysler lawyers made their first appearance in federal bankruptcy court Friday. GM has a June 1 deadline to restructure or face bankruptcy.
Press attributed the automaker's April decline to a steep drop in sales to fleet customers. Retail sales fell at a much smaller 39 percent, he said.
He dismissed the notion that fears about the company going into bankruptcy kept consumers away from dealerships.
"Maybe some people have some worries about the longevity of the company," he said. "Well, heck, now the president of the United States, the U.S. government, is not only going to back our warranties, they're going to be an investor in forming our new company."
Still, Chrysler is clinging to just a 9 percent share of the U.S. market, down from about 12 percent a year ago.
Meanwhile, Toyota reported a 42 percent drop in April sales. Toyota, the world's biggest automaker, was weighed down by declining sales across the board and a 62 percent slide in sales of its Prius hybrid.
The Japanese automaker is phasing out the existing Prius to make way for its 2010 model, which goes on sale in the U.S. in the coming weeks.
Ford's midsize Fusion model is a viable competitor against Toyota's popular Camry, with the 2010 models getting praise for quality, safety and fuel economy. More than 40 percent of the 2010 Fusions sold are hybrids that get 41 miles per gallon.
Meanwhile, GM's car sales fell more sharply than its trucks, a trend that goes against the federal government's goal to boost sales of smaller, cleaner cars.
Japanese automaker Honda Motor Co. posted a more modest 25 percent drop in sales.
Nissan Motor Co., reported a 38 percent drop in its sales. The No. 3 Japanese automaker saw double-digit sales declines across both its car and truck segments.
Subaru broke a streak of sales increases, reporting a 6.7 percent decline in volumes for April, hurt by a drop in volumes of its Outback wagon and Impreza sedan.
The Japanese automaker had been bucking brutal trends in the auto market. It was the only major automaker to report a sales increase in 2008.