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U.S. Automakers Report Lower March Sales; Toyota Gains

General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler reported declines in March U.S. sales, fulfilling analysts' expectations that the Big Three automakers would all see a drop from the same month last year. Meanwhile, sales at Toyota Motor rose, though less than expected.

Sales at General Motors were off 7.7% compared with March 2006 as the company cut back on fleet sales. The biggest U.S. automobile manufacturer sold 349,867 vehicles for the month.

Fleet sales -- which typically go to car rental companies and government agencies -- fell 11.8%. GM is cutting back on the low-margin sales.

Retail sales, which occur on showroom floors, fell 6.2%, driven by big declines in sport utility vehicles.

CNBC reports monthly U.S. automobile sales on an adjusted basis that takes into account the number of selling days in the month.

GM, which lost $10.4 billion in 2005 and more than $3 billion in 2006, is in the middle of a sweeping restructuring that includes slashing more than 34,000 jobs and closing 12 plants.

The automaker, which has been cutting production to better align it with declining sales, on Tuesday reduced its second-quarter North American production forecast to 1.16 million vehicles, down 15,000 from an estimate it provided last month.

At Ford , vehicle sales slid 12.2% compared with March 2006. The decline beat analysts' forecast of a 14% drop.

Ford's car sales fell 17.6% from last year, while truck sales declined 9.2%. The company's critical F-Series pickup truck posted March sales of 71,481, a drop of 15% from last year. Even with the decline, however, sales of the F-Series marked a positive turnaround from recent months.

"Here's the important thing -- March coming in as the best month for F-Series sales since August of last year," said CNBC's Phil LeBeau. "So what we've seen is a bit of a trough. And perhaps things have at least bottomed out and they're starting to improve for Ford."

The monthly drop comes as Dearborn-based Ford also works to reduce fleet sales.

Ford said, however, that its new mid-size cars -- including the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ -- and its new Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers sold well.

Ford's sales include Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands, as well as Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo.

DaimlerChrysler sales declined 8% on an adjusted basis. On a non-adjusted basis, the number of vehicles sold was down 4%.

"That's a little weaker than the Street was expecting, but not dramatically lower than what the Street was expecting," said LeBeau, who added that DaimlerChrysler did not differentiate fleet sales from retail sales.

DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group unit sold 206,435 vehicles in March, compared with 216,412 in March 2006. U.S. sales for Mercedes rose slightly, to 21,612 cars from 21,417.

Chrysler's car sales were off 6.1% adjusted from the year-ago period. Truck sales for the unit fared worse, falling 8.7%.

The figures come a day before DaimlerChrysler's shareholders meet in Germany amid intense speculation about a possible sale of the Chrysler division.

Prospects for Chrysler have been a hot topic since DaimlerChrysler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche first publicly floated the idea in February.

Sales Up at Toyota, Including Hybrids

At Toyota , U.S. sales rose 7.7% in March, to 242,675 vehicles. The increase fell slightly below analysts' estimates.

Car sales jumped 15.1% for Toyota, while light truck sales dropped 1%.

In all, Toyota sold 242,675 light vehicles in the U.S., including 140,009 cars and 102,666 trucks. So far this year, Toyota has sold 61,635 hybrids in the U.S., up 68% on an unadjusted basis from the first three months of last year. That includes 28,453 hybrids last month.

"This month marks a milestone eight years in the making," Jim Lentz, executive vice president of Toyota's U.S. division, said in a statement. "Record U.S. sales of Toyota and Lexus hybrids have now topped the half-million mark."

Toyota's sales include the Toyota and Lexus brands.

The numbers Tuesday come as the domestic automakers have seen Asian rivals led by Toyota capture a growing share of the U.S. market. But despite its decline, Ford still held off Toyota for the No. 2 U.S. sales spot for the month.

Also reporting positive sales news was Honda Motor, which said U.S. sales rose 7.% in March. The Japanese automaker said it sold 143,392 vehicles in the U.S. during the month, compared with 128,806 vehicles a year earlier.

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