Ford Motor Co. light-vehicle sales dropped 4.5% in March on a daily basis (27 selling days this year and in like-2005), with car deliveries falling 2.8% and light trucks declining 5.5%, according to Ward's data.

Sales of light trucks in the U.S. came to 180,824 for the month, while car deliveries totaled 104,775.

For the first three months of the year, the auto maker’s 725,814 total deliveries are pacing 2.9% behind the same period year-ago.

George Pipas, Ford’s U.S. sales analysis manager, contributes most of March’s decline to a 7% drop in retail sales compared with like-2005.

Fleet sales were relatively flat for the month. However, total fleet deliveries in the first quarter still are about 10% above year-ago levels, he adds.

Aside from the GT sports car, which is pacing 363.6% above March 2005 levels with 204 deliveries, Ford’s strongest performers in the car sector were the new Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr sedans.

Each vehicle posted its highest monthly sales to date in March, with combined deliveries amounting to 17,157, a 28% increase over February 2006, Ford says.

Pipas says most of the increase is due to increased availability of the new midsize sedans.

The Zephyr is doing particularly well, he adds, with inventory standing at less than 30 days’ supply, about half the amount for the Fusion and Milan.

Ford’s other bright spot were the F-Series pickups, up 5.8% with 80,292 deliveries, the highest March sales total since 2000, Ford says.

For the quarter, F-Series sales of 189,039 are tracking 5.7% above like-2005.

In addition, the Lincoln Mark LT luxury pickup recorded its second highest sales month (1,543) in March, and combined with the F-Series, helped boost Ford’s share of the declining fullsize pickup segment by three full points.

Ford says lower fleet sales hurt sales of the Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer SUVs, both of which were down about 30% despite relatively flat retail sales. The all-new Explorer Sport Trac sport/utility truck, however, faired better in March, posting nearly 1,500 deliveries in its first month on sale, a rate higher than Ford expected.

Other notable performances include the Mercury Mariner and Volvo XC90 cross/utility vehicles, up 62.6% and 15.7%, respectively.

Overall, Lincoln, bolstered by the Zephyr sedan, and Land Rover were the only Ford brands to record increases for the month.

Land Rover’s 4,153 deliveries in March are 39.3% above year-ago and mark the brand’s sixth consecutive month of record sales. Sales in the first quarter are up 33.8% to 11,299 due to demand for the high-end Range Rover and the new Range Rover Sport models.

Ford’s other European brands, Volvo and Jaguar, struggled in March, with sales falling 4.2% and 47.4%, respectively.

At the end of March, Ford’s inventory of 782,000 vehicles (219,000 cars/563,000 trucks) is up about 4,000 units over February levels, Pipas says.

Second-quarter 2006 production is set at 890,000 vehicles (325,000 cars/565,000 trucks), down from the 906,000 builds (294,000 cars/612,000 trucks) in like-2005.

msutton@wardsauto.com