The U.S. sales race between the Ford and Chevrolet brands this year took an interesting twist in March, with the Blue Oval delivering 200,213 light vehicles, besting Chevrolet’s 148,197.

Through the year’s first two months, the two brands ran neck and neck, with sales separated by fewer than 10,000 units. Chevrolet delivered 125,389 units in January, surpassing Ford’s 118,658, Ward’s data shows. But Ford pulled ahead in February with 147,760, compared with Chevrolet’s 142,919.

Looking at the big picture, Ford’s total light-vehicle sales in March appear to be partially incentive-driven, although it still put less on the hood than did General Motors, according to Edmunds.com.

Ford’s per-unit average incentive in January was $2,855, while GM spiffs were $3,828, the highest in the industry. The auto makers’ February incentives largely were flat at $2,778 and $3,845, respectively. Ford’s incentives remained flat in March at $2,913, but GM’s took a dramatic drop to $3,202.

Ford won overall sales race in March, selling 208,714 units, compared with GM’s 206,621. The last time Ford beat GM in overall sales was August 1998, according to Ward’s data.

Ford’s top U.S. sales analyst George Pipas downplays the victory over GM in a conference call with analysts and reporters, concentrating instead on Ford’s 15.2% year-over-year sales increase.

Ford’s passenger cars and small utilities played a large role in the sales improvement. Two vehicles – the Fusion midsize sedan and Escape cross/utility vehicle – set monthly sales records of 26,100 and 22,780, respectively.

The Ford Fiesta B-car also made a strong showing in March with 9,787 deliveries, a surge fueled by escalating gas prices, a trend Pipas says that may not continue. “In the last three weeks of the month, the small-car share of the total industry seems to have stabilized,” he says.

“Gas prices also stabilized around $3.50 a gallon. One wonders whether the small-car segment stabilized because of gas or because the availability of small cars was more limited at the end of the month. “We believe availability was a big factor, but we’re monitoring the situation.”

The Ford Focus C-car saw sales fall 15.2% in March to 17,178 units. But Pipas is quick to point out most Focuses sold in the month were of the previous generation. The auto maker has high hopes for the all-new ’12 Focus, which just now is arriving on dealer lots.

The all-new ’11 Ford Explorer racked up 12,482 deliveries for a 103.5% year-over-year increase. Despite this, Pipas says limited inventories of Explorer may have tempered sales results.

“Explorer demand is strong; it’s our fastest-turning vehicle,” he says. “Sales slowed as we continue to stock shelves. But that has not deterred consumers, who are placing orders instead of purchasing another vehicle.

Ford currently has more than 14,000 orders for the new SUV, which has a conquest rate of 42%, including 12% from luxury makes, Pipas says. The average age of new Explorer buyers is 48, down from the 52 for the outgoing model.

Ford’s F-Series fullsize pickup made a strong showing in March, despite rising gas prices, with sales up 19.0% from year-ago to 49,691.

Ken Czubay, vice president-U.S. marketing, sales and service, credits the increase to the two V-6 engines offered in the ’11 F-150 lineup. The previous-generation F-150 came equipped only with a V-8.

“Many people wondered whether truck buyers would consider a V-6,” he says. “What we’ve seen is in March is 37% of the ’11 F-150 retail sales were V-6 equipped.”

Pipas says Ford is taking steps to conserve car parts in the wake of the parts shortage caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan on March 11. Ford’s Genk, Belgium, plant will be down next week, when planned downtime is pulled ahead as a “precautionary move.”

The auto maker’s Kentucky truck plant also will be down next week to address the parts shortage, Pipas says, noting the action also is being taken because of lower demand for the Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition fullsize SUVs assembled there.

Pipas does not disclose which parts or what suppliers are at the heart of the shortage, citing company policy.

Moves not related to the Japanese disaster include downtime next week at Ford’s Hermosillo, Mexico, plant, home to the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ midsize sedans, as well as a week-long shutdown next week of Ford’s AutoAlliance plant in Flat Rock, MI, that makes the Ford Mustang and Mazda6 sedan.

“We adjusted production (at AutoAlliance) with consumer demand,” Pipas says.

bpope@wardsauto.com