After February's surprisingly strong sales results, showroom traffic eased up slightly in March. The annualized sales pace slowed a bit from February, but still hovered around 13 million units. That means the first quarter of 2011 was much better than we have been doing the past couple years, although it's far off the pace of five or so years ago. Compared to this time last year, March was better by 17%. High gasoline prices have cooled truck sales a little -- at least relative to cars. Notice that the Honda Accord knocked the Chevy Silverado out of second place this month, and the Nissan Altima very nearly passed it as well. Predictably, small cars have gotten a boost and, according to Ford sales analyst George Pipas, now account for 1 in 4 new vehicle sales, up from less than 1 in 5 as recently as December. Should the demand for small cars continue, most manufacturers are better positioned today than they were three years ago, when the last bout of $4-a-gallon gasoline hit. With better small cars as well as more fuel-efficient offerings among their mid-size and larger vehicles, carmakers should be in better shape even if high gas prices stick around into the spring selling season.
March 2011 sales results, and percent change versus March 2010
FORD MOTOR COMPANY +27% (excluding Volvo and Mercury)
Ford powered into the top spot this month, passing General Motors. The last time this happened was in February 2010, when Ford nosed ahead by some 500 units. This time the margin was 10 times wider. Ford's tally, however, was bolstered significantly by fleet sales, which accounted for 35% of its total, versus 27% at GM.
The new Explorer is selling at double the rate of its lame-duck predecessor, but equal credit for Ford's sales increase this month belongs to the always-pivotal F-series (+25%); interestingly, more than one-third of F-series pickups sold in March had a V-6 engine (regular or Ecoboost). The Escape also had a huge month in March, outselling every other SUV, and the Edge (+21%) and the Transit Connect (+47%) and even the Expedition (+40%) saw nice gains as well. Only the Flex (-29%) disappointed. On the car side, the Fiesta is still climbing (it has now passed the Mustang) and the Fusion had a truly monster month, with 27,566 sales. The Taurus (-15%) was a laggard.
The MKS sedan (-27%) and MKT crossover (-39%) both sank in March, but the MKZ (+28%) and the MKX (+12%) rallied a bit.