March brings record sales, rebounds for most carmakers

Ford trails again

Nissan, Toyota fare well

Mustang is strong seller

April 02, 2005|By Jim Mateja and Rick Popely | Jim Mateja and Rick Popely,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

March was a month of milestones in the auto industry. Toyota and Nissan posted record sales, Chrysler stayed strong, and General Motors and Honda bounced back, but Ford had another setback.

Nissan Motor Co. and its luxury Infiniti division topped the 100,000-unit mark in a month for the first time. That pushed annual sales to more than 1 million vehicles in its fiscal year, which ended Thursday.

Nissan's strong showing is noteworthy because the automaker was in financial turmoil a few years ago. It lost nearly $6.5 billion in 1999, the year it restructured. But under the ownership of Renault SA, it brought in Carlos Ghosn and has made money since then. It posted a profit of $4.5 billion last year, more than any domestic-based manufacturer, and estimates that it earned $4.9 billion in the fiscal year that just ended.

Jed Connelly, senior vice president of Nissan North America, said the renaissance started in 1999 with the Xterra sport utility vehicle and moved into segments Nissan had never been in, the full-size truck market and full-size SUVs.

Since 1999, Nissan's sales have grown 31 percent, to 985,988 vehicles last year, including its Infiniti luxury division. Sales are up 11.5 percent this year.

"We'd rather sell on the strength of the product than on the deal of the month," Connelly said, noting the successes of the Xterra, 350Z and Murano. "It all comes back to the product."

For Nissan's fiscal year, U.S. sales topped 1 million units for the first time, and the company is on target to go over 1 million for the calendar year.

Chrysler Group continued its resurgence. March sales were up 8 percent, the 12th-straight month of gains. The year-old 300 sedan continued to be Chrysler's hottest seller with a record 13,475 units.

New products such as the 300 also have been key to the Chrysler turnaround, said Dieter Zetsche, president and chief executive.

After disappointing sales in January and February, General Motors showed some life as sales rose 2 percent, to 420,442 cars and light trucks, in March. GM cut second-quarter production by 10 percent last month and said it expects to lose $850 million in the first quarter, largely because of sluggish sales of those large, profit-laden SUVs.

GM's full-size pickups sold briskly, offsetting double-digit declines in its large SUVs, which are due for replacement early next year. GM also said new models such Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G6 and Buick LaCrosse picked up last month after a slow start.

Ford was the only dim light among the domestics. Its sales fell 2 percent to 305,172 units despite a strong showing by the new Mustang coupe with sales of 17,926 last month, up 13.5 percent.

In addition to Nissan, the other two members of the Japanese Big Three - Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. - put up some big numbers.

Toyota had its best month ever, selling 203,223 vehicles through its Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands. That's up 17 percent from a year earlier.

Sales of the Toyota Prius hybrid tripled to a record 10,236 units. Toyota said Prius prices will rise $100 Monday.

Honda sales rose 11 percent, as its best-selling Accord perked up after sagging for two months.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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