DETROIT -- With May U.S. car and truck sales up 13 percent over April's tally, industry experts say the automobile market has finally bottomed out after suffering one of its worst declines in history.

But they said any talk of a recovery is premature.

Overall, May light vehicle sales totaled 925,824, which translated into a seasonally adjusted annual selling rate of more than 9.9 million units -- better than last month's 9.3 million, but still down 33.7 percent from May of 2008.

Prior to the last two weeks of the month, sales had only been up slightly compared to April, but Chrysler LLC's April 30 bankruptcy filing, and the expectation that General Motors Corp. would soon follow suit, prompted what analysts called "fire sales" -- particularly at the hundreds of dealerships Chrysler will close this month in its restructuring.

"The fact that sales have flattened out is certainly a favorable development," said Ford Motor Co. economist Emily Kolinski Morris. "But the May results should be interpreted with some caution, given the volatility in the marketplace. "

Kolinski Morris, and Jesse Toprak of the auto shopping site, said May looked much like April until sales surged in the last 10 days of the month -- still good news for an industry struggling to put the brakes on a yearlong decline in sales.

"At least things are not deteriorating any further," Toprak said. "We are seeing glimmers of hope."

He said it is unlikely that the selling rate will fall to February's dismal level of 9.1 million units again. "Consumer confidence is improving," Toprak said. "We're probably fishing right around the bottom at this point."

Ford reaps benefits

Ford appeared to be the biggest beneficiary, posting the smallest decline of any of the major carmakers and claiming the biggest gain in market share. It sold 161,197 cars and trucks, down 24.1 percent year-over-year, but enough to push its market share up to 17.4 percent from 15.2 percent a year ago.

That was Ford's smallest year-over-year decline since last August, and its seventh market share gain in eight months. Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of sales and marketing, said the company did it even with lower incentives and higher transaction prices than it had a year ago.

"(But) nobody can rejoice," he said. "It is still a very fragile industry."

Pointing to strengthening economic indicators, Ford announced plans to produce 460,000 vehicles in the third quarter, boosting factory output by 10 percent over last year.

GM's market share increases

GM sales totaled 190,881 vehicles -- down 29 percent over May 2008 -- but its share edged up to 20.6 percent from 19.2 percent.

"This gives us a lot of confidence that some negative issues we've had to deal with are behind us and have not affected our sales," said Mike DiGiovanni, GM's executive director of global market analysis. "Both globally and in the United States, the industry is starting to make a turn for the positive."

Despite the sell-downs by some dealers, Chrysler saw its sales drop 46.9 percent, to 79,010 cars and trucks, and its market share fell from 10.6 percent to 8.5 percent.

Steve Landry, Chrysler's head of marketing, sales and service, said the company was "satisfied" by its performance during a difficult time. "I don't know any of our dealers that had a fire sale," Landry said. "I think they made money on all those deals."

Japanese carmakers take hit

Japanese automakers also saw a big sales decline last month, but analysts noted that was in comparison to much stronger May numbers a year ago. Gasoline prices were skyrocketing then, fueling demand for their smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Toyota Motor Corp. sold 152,583 cars and trucks, down 40.7 percent. Its share of the U.S. market also dropped, to 16.5 percent from 18.4 percent, marking the second month in a row that Ford outsold the Japanese juggernaut. But Bob Carter, general manager of the Toyota brand division in North America, noted that May was still the company's strongest month this year.

"We're starting to see a little more optimism in the market, and we're starting to add a little incremental production," Carter said, adding that Toyota will increase output by 65,000 vehicles over the next four months.

Honda Motor Co. sold 98,344 vehicles, down 41.5 percent. Its market share fell to 10.6 percent in May, from 12 percent.

Nissan Motor Co. sales plunged 33.1 percent, with 67,489 units sold, but its market share edged up to 7.3 percent from 7.2 percent.

Analysts said sales could slump again in June as Chrysler closes hundreds of dealerships. GM, which followed Chrysler into Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday, also will close thousands of dealerships as it restructures, but will do so over the next 18 months, giving retailers time to sell off their inventories.

Still, there is optimism the worst may be over. GM sales chief Mark LaNeve is encouraged by the recent stability of the monthly sales rate. "We really believe this does indicate we did find bottom as an industry back in the spring and are beginning to fight our way back."

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