DETROIT - Ford Motor Co., the world's second biggest automaker, said Tuesday its sales fell 5 percent last month as consumers shied away from large purchases.
Ford, in the midst of a five-year restructuring, said its new car volume was off 2.7 percent, while truck sales fell 5.9 percent.
Last month had one less selling day than March 2002.
Despite falling sales, Ford said its U.S. market share grew to 21.3 percent in the first quarter, an improvement from 20.7 percent a year ago.
George Pipas, the automaker's top sales analyst, said the figure was even more impressive considering that Ford has discontinued several models as part of its turnaround plan, such as the Lincoln Continental and Mercury Cougar, while adding only the Lincoln Aviator.
"This would be one of the largest gains achieved by any manufacturer during this period," Pipas said, noting that most of the growth came in the light truck segment - pickups, sport utility vehicles and vans.
For the first quarter, Ford's total vehicle sales were about flat compared with the year-ago period.
Industry observers have predicted a modest decline in sales for March, better than some dire forecasts a few weeks ago.
Analysts say the so-called "CNN effect" - the period during a crisis such as war in which people remain at home watching TV coverage instead of spending money - has been milder than anticipated.
If sales fall 6 percent to 8 percent in March as some analysts predict, that would put the average annual tally at some 15.7 million units through the first quarter.
Last year, Americans bought 16.8 million new cars and light trucks - the fourth-best year on record.
Forecasts for total volume in 2003 have ranged from 15.9 million to nearly 17 million, though most now are in the low to mid 16 millions.
Automobile sales account for approximately 24 percent of total U.S. retail sales tracked by the U.S. Commerce Department.
Customer incentives likely will play a large role in boosting auto sales, and General Motors Corp. upped the ante mightily Monday by announcing five-year, no-interest loans on nearly every new vehicle except the Hummer.
GM also is offering cash rebates of up to $3,000 on most models.
The program, which the world's No. 1 automaker calls "Zero to Sixty," is more extensive than the one it initiated after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The incentives are "our most compelling and simple offer ever," said John Smith, group vice president for GM North America Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing.
"Everybody can figure what their payment is going to be - just divide by 60," Smith said.
It applies to models, such as the Corvette, that have not always qualified for incentives.
GM originally offered incentives in an effort prop up sales after Sept. 11, 2001 and has kept up the pressure on its competitors since.
Ford's latest incentive offer, which features no-interest loans for three years on most Ford models, expires Wednesday.
Ford was expected to announce its new program later Tuesday.
Share in Ford were down 2 cents to $7.50 each in trading Tuesday on the New York Stock Exchange.