Ford Motor Co. is poised to be the top U.S. auto seller in March, surpassing General Motors Co. for only the second time since 1998, according to projections by auto information company Edmunds.com.
Ford, which has steadily gained market share in recent years and knocked Toyota Motor Corp. from the No. 2 spot, last led the nation in sales in February 2010.
Last year Ford surged to the top briefly as consumers deserted Toyota because of its millions of recalls and brief sales suspension and as GM was still struggling after emerging from its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization.
This month, Ford is benefiting from GM ratcheting back the large sales incentives and discounts it had used to juice sales in the first two months of the year and grab market share.
"This has more to do with GM falling than Ford gaining," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at Edmunds.com.
Consumers are expected to buy about 1 million vehicles this month, about 12% more than in March 2010, according to J.D. Power & Associates.
"Retail sales in March are exhibiting strength … despite increasing gas prices and falling inventory levels," said Jeff Schuster, a J.D. Power analyst.
March retail car sales may be benefitting from the uncertainty about inventory levels caused by production shutdowns after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan "as consumers flock to dealerships to secure their choice of vehicle as availability decreases," he said.
J.D. Power also is seeing a shift in the types of vehicles people are purchasing as gas prices rise. Subcompact and compact cars now account for 24.2% of retail vehicle purchases, up from 20.2% in February. The retail figures don't include so-called fleet sales to rental car companies, businesses and governments.