Auto sales up 17 percent

  • Associated Press
  • Saturday, April 2, 2011 12:01am
  • Business

DETROIT — Americans slipped into smaller cars and sport utility vehicles in March, as higher gas prices made fuel efficiency a top priority and rising employment meant more first-time buyers bought a vehicle.

The trends lifted U.S. sales of new vehicles by 17 percent from a year earlier to 1

.25 million, a healthy rate that shows the auto industry’s slow and steady recovery remains on track. The monthly sales pace, adjusted for seasonal differences and projected out for the year, came in at 13.1 million. During recent boom years, car sales hit 16 million a year.

The March 11 earthquake in Japan had little impact on sales, although automakers said supplies could be tighter as spring progresses.

General Motors, Ford, Honda and Nissan all saw double-digit increases in sales. Of major automakers, only Toyota reported a decline of 6 percent, but that was expected since Toyota’s sales last March were boosted by big incentives.

Locally, Harris Ford in Lynnwood reported a 97 percent increase in March over year ago sales, led by Focus and Fiesta. Brien Ford reported a 112 percent hike, with strong sales of the Focus and of Escape and Ranger trucks.

As gas prices rose, sales of more efficient cars and crossovers took off. The national average for a gallon of gas hit $3.58 this week, the highest price ever for this time of year. Gas prices have jumped 25.1 cents per gallon in the past month.

“This is a new normal we’re going to experience going into spring this year unless gas prices ease off dramatically,” said Jesse Toprak, vice president for industry trends at auto pricing site TrueCar.com.

Sales of the Nissan Sentra compact car doubled over last year, for example, while sales of the Hyundai Sonata and Elantra small cars were up a combined 55 percent. Fuel-efficient crossovers did well, too. Ford Escape sales climbed 25 percent.

But Toprak said gas prices weren’t the whole story. Buyers always respond to new products, and it just happens that many of those products — like the Ford Fiesta subcompact and Chevrolet Cruze small car — are also the most fuel-efficient.

A healthier economy also gave buyers more confidence to walk into showrooms and walk out with a new ride. Many of those workers are young people who were looking for work during the recession but now have jobs and are looking to buy a car. And the cars they want are under $20,000 and fuel-efficient, Toprak said.

Larger cars, crossovers and SUVs are most hurt by the trend. Buyers seem to be moving down one vehicle size when they make a new purchase.

Sales of the Chevrolet Traverse, a large crossover, fell 4.7 percent in March, while sales of the mid-size Chevrolet Equinox crossover were up 17 percent. Sales of the Ford Taurus large sedan were down 15 percent, but the Ford Fusion midsize sedan saw its best sales month ever.

Ford CEO pay

The President and CEO of Ford Motor Co. received a pay package valued at $26.5 million in 2010, up 48 percent from 2009, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Alan Mulally, 65, who was hired away from Boeing Co. in 2006 to rescue Ford, received a base salary of $1.4 million. He received stock and option awards valued at nearly $15 million when they were granted. He also got a $3.1 million bonus and $6.3 million worth of incentive compensation.

Other compensation, for life insurance, contributions to 401K and retirement plans, personal use of private aircraft, security, and housing, totaled $678,029.

Associated Press

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