Toyota, GM Attribute Sales Jump to Fuel-Efficient Offerings

Toyota Motor Corp.'s (TM) U.S. vehicle sales jumped 14.1 percent in May to its best monthly level ever and General Motors Corp.'s (GM) sales rose 9.7 percent as both automakers credited in part the appeal of their more fuel-efficient offerings amid high gas prices.

For the month, Toyota outsold Ford Motor Co. (F), which saw sales fall 6.9 percent as it continued to cut low-profit sales to rental companies. Nissan Motor Co.'s (NSANY) sales gained 7.4 percent and DaimlerChrysler AG's (DCX) sales rose 3.9 percent with help from a 20 percent jump in its Jeep brand.

GM, the industry's top seller, said Friday it sold 371,056 light vehicles last month. Car sales, including the Chevrolet Impala and Saturn Aura, rose 16.2 percent to 150,979, while light truck sales, including the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, gained 5.6 percent to 220,077. GM's sales include the European Saab brand.

"We saw strong total and retail sales increases," Mark LaNeve, GM's vice president of North American sales, service and marketing, said in a statement. "Our significant market share gains in full-size trucks and crossovers validates the decision we made to invest in industry-leading fuel economy in these important segments."

Toyota, which has been gaining market share in the U.S., sold 269,023 Toyota and Lexus vehicles in May, topping its previous monthly record of 242,675 set in March. Car sales rose 16.2 percent to 168,270, while light truck sales, including the Tundra, rose 10.9 percent to 100,753.

Toyota said its sales gains came as rising retail gas prices were met by increasing consumer confidence. Sales of the Camry passenger car rose 16.3 percent to 50,126, while hybrid Prius sales jumped to 24,009 from 8,103 in the same month a year ago. Tundra sales were 17,727, up 122 percent.

"Despite the industry's shift toward passenger cars, Toyota's all-new Tundra hit an all-time high in May," Jim Lentz, executive vice president of Toyota's U.S. division, said in a statement. "As for hybrids, the market's appetite continues unabated, with Prius also establishing an all-time record."

Ford said its sales to retail customers, which were 3 percent lower than a year ago, still marked its best retail month of the year as the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers continued to make gains.

"These new crossovers are the right products at the right time," Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said in a statement. "Consumer demand for the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX has exceeded our original expectations."

Ford said it now expects Edge sales to reach 120,000 this year — 20 percent higher than its original forecast.

Sales of Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover brands, including fleet sales, totaled 258,391 last month, including 169,265 light trucks and 89,126 cars. Truck sales were essentially flat from a year ago, but car sales dropped 17.7 percent. Ford said its Escape and Mercury Mariner hybrid sport utility vehicles did well for the month.

George Pipas, Ford's top sales analyst, earlier this week had predicted that his company's retail sales to individual buyers would show a year-over-year monthly increase for the first time since October 2006. But he said Friday that sales during the Memorial Day holiday weekend didn't rise to his expectations.

"The last week of the month was softer for us," Pipas said during a Friday conference call with analysts and reporters.

Pipas, however, said the numbers indicate Ford's U.S. market share appears to have stabilized between 14 and 15 percent, a milestone since it had been losing about 1 percentage point of share per year. The company had set 14 to 15 percent as a goal for 2007 and 2008 under its restructuring plan.

Chrysler's passenger vehicle sales, which include the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands, rose 4.3 percent to 199,393, while Mercedes sales rose 0.7 percent to 21,771. Dodge sales were up about 3 percent.

Detailed breakdowns from DaimlerChrysler, which sold a total 221,164 vehicles in the U.S. last month, were expected later in the day.

With retail gas prices well above $3 per gallon across the nation, some analysts were expecting lower U.S. sales from May 2006. But rebates and other incentives, which the auto Web site reported Friday were on the rise last month, may offset uncertainty about future fuel prices.

Toyota has been banking on a reputation for reliable and fuel-efficient cars — and making monthly sales gains — as its increases U.S. market share. GM and Ford have been working to cut fleet sales, and that effort has weighed on their U.S. sales totals in recent months, but GM still made gains.

Nissan said its U.S. sales, including Nissan and Infiniti, rose on good performances by its larger sedans and fuel-efficient small cars. The company said it sold 93,062 vehicles, up from 86,667 during the same month last year. It said it pushed the fuel-efficient Versa subcompact and Sentra compact cars in May advertising as gas prices were rising.

"Obviously people responded to that," said Brad Shaw, Nissan's senior vice president for sales and marketing.

Ford, meanwhile, announced North American production targets for the third quarter. It said it plans to build 640,000 vehicles in the quarter, down slightly from the 642,000 it built in the third quarter of 2006. For the second quarter of 2007, it left unchanged its production target of 810,000 vehicles.

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, which last month was 26 and in May 2006 was 25.