Toyota sets sales record

But GM posts big decline as ailing firm backs off rental fleet deals

DETROIT -- The US auto industry's slump hit General Motors Corp. hard in March, when the automaker's sales fell almost 15 percent while rival Toyota reported its highest ever monthly sales.

The sales report was more bad news for GM, which lost $10.6 billion in 2005 and has been giving up US market share to Asian competitors, leaving Toyota Motor Corp. nipping at its heels in the race for who can claim the title of world's largest automaker.

GM car sales dropped 22 percent as the automaker eased off on sales to rental fleets, while truck and SUV sales were down 9 percent despite brisk sales of the redesigned Chevrolet Tahoe, which saw a 20 percent increase. GM's sales were down 5 percent for the quarter.

Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of market and industry analysis, said the results reflect the company's goals of cutting sales to daily rental fleets -- which have lower margins and hurt automakers' residual values -- and relying less heavily on incentives.

Sales at Toyota rose 7 percent for the month, led by a 15 percent increase in truck and sport utility vehicle sales. While sales of full-size SUVs sank -- the Toyota Land Cruiser was down 31 percent from a year ago -- sales of the midsize 4Runner rose 15 percent and sales of the redesigned RAV4 crossover shot up 117 percent. Also, Toyota's sales were up 7 percent for the quarter.

Jim Press, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said lingering concerns about gas prices are leading buyers to hybrids and smaller, less expensive vehicles.