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US March, Q1 auto sales drop in weak start to 2019

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The battle for market share in the particularly lucrative large pickup truck market intensified in the quarter, as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV'S (FCA) Ram brand outsold No 1 US automaker General Motors Co's Chevrolet brand trucks.

[WASHINGTON] Major automakers on Tuesday reported weak sales for March and the first quarter citing a rough start to the year, but said a robust economy and strong labor market should encourage consumers to buy more vehicles as 2019 rolls on.

Passenger car sales suffered throughout the first quarter versus the same period in 2018 as Americans continued to abandon them in favor or larger, more comfortable and, for automakers, far more profitable pickup trucks and SUVs.

The battle for market share in the particularly lucrative large pickup truck market intensified in the quarter, as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV'S (FCA) Ram brand outsold No 1 US automaker General Motors Co's Chevrolet brand trucks.

The two automakers have both launched redesigned pickup trucks. For decades Ford Motor Co has had the single best-selling truck brand in its F-Series trucks, with the Chevy brand a solid No 2, and Ram a distant third.

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In the fourth quarter the Chevy and Ram brands were tied for second place behind Ford.

Overall, US new vehicle sales are expected to decline in 2019 after a long bull run since the end of the Great Recession, led by falling passenger car sales. Competition in the high-margin SUV market is also intensifying.

Ford on Tuesday publicly unveiled details of the latest version of its Escape SUV, heavily emphasizing comfort features including a moving rear seat to provide more leg room to passengers, plus consumer-friendly features such as an 8 inch (20.3cm) touchscreen and Wi-Fi connection for up to 10 devices within 50 feet (15.2m) of the vehicle.

GM posted a 7 per cent drop in first-quarter sales, with declines across all brands. Sales of the automaker's Silverado pickup trucks fell nearly 16 per cent and the high-margin Chevy Suburban large SUV dropped 25 per cent.

GM does not report monthly sales.

FCA reported a 7 per cent fall in US sales in March and a 3 per cent drop for the first quarter. All of FCA's brands dropped in March, except for Ram, which saw a 15 per cent increase in pickup truck sales.

"The industry had a tough first quarter but with spring finally starting to show its face and continued strong economic indicators... we are confident that new vehicle sales demand will strengthen going forward," FCA's US head of sales Reid Bigland said in a statement.

Toyota Motor Corp reported a 3.5 per cent fall in US sales in March and 5 per cent for the first quarter, hurt by declining demand for its Corolla sedans and Camry vehicles.

"While some of our competitors are abandoning sedans, we remain optimistic about the future of the segment," Toyota said in a statement.

Nissan Motor Co Ltd posted a 5.3 per cent drop in sales in March and its first-quarter sales were down 11.6 per cent.

Industry consultants J.D. Power and LMC Automotive have predicted a 2.1 per cent drop in US auto sales in March, partly due to bad weather, mixed economic data and lower tax refunds.

REUTERS