Ford Motor Company said that its U.S. sales rose 3.4% in March, outpacing analyst estimates, on very strong results for its F-Series pickups and key SUV models.

Ford's old Detroit rivals both reported bigger gains: General Motors said that its sales rose 16%, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' sales were up 14%.

Year to date, Ford's U.S. sales are still down 2.9% after a rough early start to 2018.

How Ford's U.S. sales compared to rivals

Here are March's sales totals for the six largest-selling automakers in the U.S. market. All but Nissan saw sales increase last month. 

Automaker March 2018 Sales Change (YOY)
General Motors 296,341 15.7%
Ford (F -0.81%) 244,306 3.4%
Toyota 222,782 3.5%
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles 216,083 14%
Nissan 162,535 (3.7%)
Honda 142,392 3.8%

Data sources: The automakers. YOY = year over year. 

A white 2018 Ford Expedition, a full-size truck-based SUV, pulling an Airstream trailer on a mountain road.

The all-new Ford Expedition is selling as fast as Ford can crank them out, at very strong prices. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

High and low points from Ford's March sales results

The high points:

  • Ford's F-Series pickups continued to put up big sales numbers in March. Ford sold a total of 87,011 F-Series trucks, up 7% from a good year-ago result.
  • The big Expedition SUV is all-new for 2018 and demand has been very strong, with retail sales up 46% from a year ago. (Supplies are still limited as Ford ramps up production. The company is prioritizing retail deliveries over fleet sales. Overall sales rose 3.3%.)
  • The Expedition is "turning" very quickly, spending just 17 days on dealer lots, on average. Its average transaction price was up $11,500 from a year ago.
  • Retail sales of the Expedition's upscale sibling, the Lincoln Navigator, were up 101% from a year ago. It's spending just 10 days on dealer lots. Overall Navigator sales were up 90.7% from the year-ago period, and the model's average transaction price rose a stout $25,600.
  • Expedition and Navigator sales were probably limited to some extent by supply. Ford is working to increase production; sales could rise further as the year goes on.
  • Ford's crossover SUVs also showed some strength, with the midsize Edge up 18.7% and the three-row Explorer up 3.9%. Sales of the Escape fell 2.6%, and Ford sold 3,296 EcoSports. (But note that despite the slight sales drop, the Escape's Kentucky factory has been running flat-out to keep up with still-huge demand.) 
  • Ford's fleet sales rose 8.7% in March, offsetting declines in January and February and bringing Ford's first-quarter fleet deliveries roughly in line with the year-ago period. Sales of the big Transit van, a commercial-fleet favorite, were up 8.3%.
  • Ford's overall average transaction price was a very healthy $36,300 in March.

The low points:

  • Sales of Ford's car models continued to decline, with Ford-brand cars down 7% as a group and Lincoln's sedans down 23.9%. Bucking the trend: Sales of the compact Focus rose 11.8%.
  • Lincoln's crossover SUVs are struggling. MKC sales fell 5.9% and MKX was down 3.1%. Updated versions of both are due later this year. Sales of Lincoln's third crossover, the airport-shuttle MKT, rose 14% to 252 units. (The MKT will be replaced by the all-new Aviator next year.)
A 2019 Lincoln Nautilus, a midsize premium SUV, on a coastal road.

A revamped version of the Lincoln MKX, renamed Nautilus, arrives later this year. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

The upshot: Profitable trends should help first-quarter results

Some big factors are working against Ford right now. The U.S. new-car market is probably past its cyclical peak. Overall sales numbers are still strong, but sustained growth is hard to fund, and incentives are rising. Ford is also in a difficult place in its product-replacement cycle: Several important new models are coming, but most are still several quarters away.

Given those factors, it won't be much of surprise if Ford's first-quarter profit in its critical North America region falls from the $1.99 billion it reported a year ago. But Ford has managed to offset those pressures somewhat with big sales of new and refreshed high-margin products. Sales of the super-profitable F-Series were up 4.3% in the first quarter, with strong average transaction prices, and the good early retail results for the Expedition and Navigator should give margins an additional boost.

On balance, I'd say that Ford investors should be cautious, but a bit optimistic, as we look ahead to the Blue Oval's earnings report on April 25.