Auto Sales Well Above 2003 Level

    GRAND RAPIDS — Vehicle sales through the first three months of the year were up from year-ago levels at most automakers, signaling a solid year in 2004.

    General Motors and Ford each reported sales growth during March alone, while Chrysler and Honda posted monthly sales declines and Toyota saw record monthly sales.

    Overall, U.S. vehicle sales through the first quarter of 2004 are running ahead of 2003 and auto analyst Erich Merkle anticipates a seasonal “sales pop” this month that will push the industry toward a sales pace of 17 million vehicles for the year.

    That would be the same pace as in 2000.

    “I couldn’t ask for more in the first quarter. I’m very optimistic about the year,” said Merkle, a senior analyst with IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids.

    “We’re definitely off to a better start than we were last year.”

    Sales in 2003 topped out at 15.7 million units.

    Among the domestic automakers, GM posted a 6 percent sales increase in March and a 5 percent increase for the quarter over the same period a year ago.

    Leading the way for GM was a 7.5 percent increase in truck sales and a 5 percent increase in SUVs. GM’s car sales grew 1 percent.

    Ford reported an overall 3 percent sales increase for March but a 1 percent decline for the quarter, due largely to an 11 percent quarterly decline in car sales. Ford’s truck sales, which outpace cars by nearly a two-to-one rate, grew 4 percent on the back of the popular F-150 series.

    The Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler saw sales fall 2 percent for March but increased 2 percent for the quarter, with the Dodge Ram pick-up truck setting a sales record for the month with a 10 percent increase from March 2003.

    Honda’s North American sales overall slid 4.8 percent in March, with both car and truck sales decreasing, although the Acura MDX and TL models posted a record month.

    For the quarter, Honda’s sales were off 0.9 percent.

    Toyota set a record-setting pace for March, with a 5.5 percent sales increase over a year ago and a 12.1 percent increase for the quarter, the best ever in the 47 years the Japanese automaker has done business in the United States.

    IRN’s Merkle anticipates “robust” sales activity for the industry in April and the second quarter, as automakers respond to the latest round of sales incentives from GM, which is offering zero percent financing and cash-back allowances on new vehicles.

    Ford and Chrysler, Merkle said, will have to respond to GM’s incentives in order to maintain market share.

    Automotive production in North America is running behind last year’s pace, as automakers try to reduce inventories. Ward’s Automotive reported a 3.7 percent reduction in production through April 8 from 2003.

    Car production was down 9.3 per cent to 2 million units, and truck production was up three-tenths of a percent to 2.8 million units.

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