Ford Motor Co.’s top U.S. sales chief dismisses a comment by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. Group Vice President Bob Carter that “50,000 to 60,000 of (units) coming out of Ford” are going to daily rental fleets.

“They are inaccurate,” Ford’s George Pipas tells Ward’s. “We sell many vehicles to fleet customers. Everybody knows that. We happily acknowledge it.

“But our daily rental business is in line with the industry average, while many other competitors are (obviously) higher than industry average,” he says in response to comments made by Carter at the New York auto show this week.

Ford’s fleet sales last month soared 53% from year-ago, Pipas says, attributing the increase to fleet customers purchasing more vehicles as the economy rebounds. Ford’s fleet mix for the month was 33%, and of that, only 19% were to daily rental fleets, he says.

As such, fleet sale increases will be “minimized as we progress though the year and fleet business returns to something approaching normal.”

Ford’s combined fleet and retail light-vehicle sales in March rose 35.2% on a daily basis, compared with year-ago (26 selling days vs. 25 in like-2009), to 181,588.

First-quarter deliveries climbed 27.3%, compared with prior-year, to 437,033 units. The auto maker’s U.S. market share rose 16.5% in the period, up 2.5 points from like-2009.

Ford’s March sales increase, which outpaced the industry’s growth of about 26%, is not due to increased incentive spending, as some reports have suggested, Pipas says.

According to Edmunds.com, which tracks incentive spending, Ford spent $3,304 on incentives per vehicle last month, while General Motors Co. spent $3,519 per vehicle and Chrysler Group LLC slapped $3,359 on the hoods of its vehicles.

Ford’s overall incentive spend was down slightly from year-ago’s $3,673.

However, Pipas admits the auto maker increased spiffs on select models to keep pace with Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., which in March was offering 0% financing for 60 months, or low lease rates, in response to an 8.7% new-vehicle sales drop in February.

“We picked out a couple of product lines that faced off to (the) popular (Toyota) Camry and Corolla,” he says, noting the Ford Fusion midsize sedan and Focus C-car were beneficiaries of the incentive program.

Pipas declines to reveal specifics on incentive increases, but the move paid off as Fusion sales soared 64.7% in March to 21,103, while Focus deliveries surged 51.4% to 19,500.

Most Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models posted gains for the month. Perhaps most important was the 27.2% increase in Ford’s F-Series pickup deliveries to 40,477.

“(The) F-Series continues to strengthen its leadership position,” says Ken Czubay, Ford vice president-sales and marketing. “In the first two months of 2010, (the) F-Series’ share of the segment was up 8 percentage points to 40%.”

The new Ford Taurus sedan also had a solid month, with sales spiking 79.1% to 7,001. A year-ago comparison is difficult, as 2009 deliveries were for the previous-generation Taurus.

The Taurus’ platform mate, the Lincoln MKS, did not fare as well in March, with deliveries plunging 10.1% to 1,443.

Ford’s hybrid vehicles – the Ford Fusion and Escape and Mercury Milan and Mariner – posted sales of 3,050 last month, up 69% compared with like-2009.

Czubay says Ford expects continuing success, noting a slew of new products are set to debut. These include the ’11 Super Duty, ’11 Mustang and ’11 Fiesta B-segment car, which already has garnered much attention from dealers.

“In March, dealers called to get their orders,” he says of the Fiesta, due to arrive this summer. “Dealers wanted more than twice the number we had to sell them. They are going to see people in their showrooms that they haven’t seen in quite a long time.”

Next week, Ford will re-launch its former marketing campaign, dubbed “Swap Your Ride,” Czubay says. Details will be revealed closer to the April 6 date.

Volvo Car’s sales fell 20.8% to 5,237 in March, although its first-quarter deliveries were up 10.9%. Ford this week inked a deal to sell the Swedish auto maker to China-based Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd.

The U.S. auto maker will continue to report Volvo sales until the transaction is finalized, Pipas says.

Ford ended March with a 404,000-unit inventory, down from 416,000 at the close of February.

bpope@wardsauto.com