Vehicle sales down in March; BMW the only gainer

New-vehicle retail sales were down 13 percent in the first 12 days of March when compared to a similar time period a year ago, according to the Power Information Network. With an 8 percent increase in retail sales versus a year ago, BMW was the only multi-franchise automaker to experience a gain in retail sales in early March. Retail sales at American Honda were flat when compared to a year ago, and deliveries at the remaining seven manufacturers all experienced a decline. The range of retail sales loss varied significantly among the seven manufacturers, with Volkswagen experiencing a 2 percent decline and General Motors down by 20 percent. Deliveries at Toyota Motor Corp. decreased by 9 percent, while the remaining manufacturers, DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor, Hyundai and Nissan Motor, all experienced declines in the double-digits.

At the segment level, full size cars were the only segment to experience a year-over-year sales increase (up 6% when compared to a year ago). In contrast, all three light truck segments -- SUVs, pickups and vans -- had double-digit sales declines and lost market share.

With regard to share of the retail new-vehicle market, GM led the industry with 21.3 percent in early March, (down from 23% a year ago). Toyota followed with 16.8 percent of the retail new-vehicle market, (up from 16.0%) and Ford declined to 16.3 percent, (down from 17.6% a year ago). Honda captured 11.6 percent of all retail transactions in early March, (up from 10% versus a year ago) and Nissan increased to 8.1 percent, (up from 8.0%). BMW also gained retail share, while Hyundai experienced a slight decline.

"Toyota, Honda and BMW continue to do well at the retail level," said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at PIN. "GM and Ford need to stop their retail share deterioration, and GM hopes their 'March Madness' campaign will help do that."

The industry continues to move away from incentives, with total customer cash incentives (including subvented interest rates) down 23 percent year-over-year. The percentage of transactions with a cash rebate was also down by 3 percent in early March. However, this trend is not likely to continue for the remainder of the month as General Motors recently launched a new "March Madness" incentive program.

"So far through the first quarter we're pretty much on track with where we were last year, which turned out to be the third best selling year in history," said Bob Schnorbus, chief economist of global forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates. "However, it's still difficult to know if the big incentives that were implemented last year and pushed some monthly sales to near record levels will return and have a significant impact on the remainder of the year."