SUV and Truck Sales Plunge

An offer of free gas hangs over unsold Ford Explorers at a dealership in Denver. Ford's SUV sales fell 36 percent compared with April 2007.
An offer of free gas hangs over unsold Ford Explorers at a dealership in Denver. Ford's SUV sales fell 36 percent compared with April 2007. (By David Zalubowski -- Associated Press)
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By Dee-Ann Durbin
Associated Press
Friday, May 2, 2008

DETROIT, May 1 -- Sales at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler suffered double-digit declines, but Toyota's edged up 3 percent in April, as high gas prices accelerated consumers' move away from trucks and sport-utility vehicles.

Automakers reported sales Thursday, and they were expected to be weak throughout the industry as gas prices reached record highs.

General Motors said its truck and SUV sales dropped 27 percent, dragging down increases in car and crossover sales and GM's best-ever month for hybrids. GM's overall sales were down 16 percent for the month compared with last April.

"Consumer preference is shifting, and we're shifting with it," said Mark LaNeve, GM's vice president of North American sales. Sales of GM's midsize Chevrolet Malibu shot up 40 percent, but the sales of the long-popular Chevrolet TrailBlazer SUV collapsed, falling 73 percent.

GM said it produced 130,000 fewer vehicles in April because of an ongoing strike at supplier American Axle & Manufacturing that has affected 30 plants. LaNeve said the production cuts didn't affect sales to individual customers because of the company's large inventory of trucks and SUVs. But LaNeve said GM cut 15,000 sales to rental and commercial fleets in April because of the strike.

Ford Motor said that its SUV sales declined 36 percent in April compared with the comparable month last year and that its overall sales fell 12 percent. Car sales were down only 1 percent, buoyed by sales of the Focus, which rose 44 percent. The Focus gets 24 miles per gallon in the city and 33 on the highway. By comparison, Ford's largest SUV, the Expedition, gets 12 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway.

George Pipas, Ford's top sales analyst, said retail -- or non-fleet -- sales of passenger cars exceeded those of trucks and sport-utility vehicles combined for the first time in at least 20 years.

"It's such a new world for us because, as you well know, for the better part of the last two decades we've been a truck and SUV company predominantly," Pipas said. "So this requires a big shift in our culture, in our training and our thinking. Not only for Ford but our dealers."

Toyota Motor said its car sales rose 12 percent, largely on the strength of the subcompact Yaris, whose sales rose 46 percent, and the hybrid Prius, whose sales were up 54 percent. Toyota's truck and SUV sales dropped 8 percent.

"We continue to see that fuel efficiency will remain one of the top priorities for purchasing consumers," said Bob Carter, general manager of Toyota's U.S. division.

Chrysler said sales fell 23 percent, with car sales down 19 percent and truck and SUV sales down 25 percent. The Jeep Commander SUV saw sales plummet 49 percent. Steven Landry, Chrysler's executive vice president of North American sales, said that decline was partly caused by a 33 percent drop in low-profit fleet sales. Ford and GM cut fleet sales as well.

Pickup sales have been falling for months because of the slowdown in housing construction The trend away from SUVs began several years ago as baby boomers aged and roomy but more fuel-efficient crossover vehicles gave consumers more choice. But automakers said gas prices are accelerating the trend.

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