Ford Motor Co.’s light-vehicle sales fell 4.1% in February, with a 1.4% dip in car deliveries and a 5.6% decline in light trucks, according to Ward’s data.

Ford sold 148,651 light trucks and 90,938 cars in the U.S. during February.

George Pipas, U.S. sales analysis manager for Ford, says retail sales fell 9% for the month, while fleet sales rose 15%.

Pipas says Ford remains adamant about reducing its dependence on fleet sales, but its fleet mix for February was 41%, an increase compared with year-ago’s 36%.

Pipas says demand for Ford’s Econoline van and F-Series pickup truck in the Gulf Coast region, due to reconstruction efforts following last year’s hurricanes, is driving the corporate fleet mix upward.

But also he points out Ford’s daily rental sales are lower than those of Japanese brands, according to R.L. Polk’s 2005 registration data.

“I think it was right for people to say fleet was the big helper (in January),” Pipas says.

“I think (February’s) fleet is not as much a factor for Ford or for the industry. We’re looking at a sales rate that might be in the low- to mid-17 million range.” (See related story: Fleets Propel Ford to 2% Sales Gain in January)

Fleet mix for February and year-to-date is “fairly close to Ford’s expectations,” Pipas says. “We have not yet reached the stabilization (of retail sales), but we have quite substantially reduced the rate of decline. We do seem to be making progress on reducing the rate of slippage in the business.”

He bases this on year-to-date statistics showing a 1% drop in fleet deliveries and 9% falloff in retail sales vs. January and February 2005’s 17% decline in retail and 20% increase in fleet deliveries.

Ford says it had 211,000 cars and 569,000 trucks in inventory at the end of February, 120,000 combined units fewer than like-2005 but 10,000 more than in January.

Breaking results down by brand, Ford says only Land Rover saw an increase in sales last month, driven by the Range Rover, up 8.1% vs. prior-year, and Range Rover Sport models.

All Volvo nameplates saw year-over-year declines, as did Jaguar models.

Ford’s trio of new midsize cars – the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr – recorded their first monthly sales drop in February vs. prior month. Ford sold 13,388 vehicles, combined, compared with 17,130 in January.

“Happily, the retail sales were up though,” Pipas says, adding some fleet business for the three models was “trimmed” from January to February. He says sales of the Fusion, Milan and Zephyr are outpacing production.

While Ford’s refreshed Explorer SUV continues to struggle, sliding 21.1% vs. year-ago, which Pipas blames on the elimination of the Sport Trac trim from the model lineup, the new Freestyle cross/utility vehicle and Escape small CUV saw February increases.

Despite media criticism of its Super Bowl ad featuring Kermit the Frog, the Ford Escape Hybrid likely benefited from the marketing push as sales for the hybrid-electric vehicle rose 12.9% in February from prior-year, to 1,233 units.

The twin Mercury Mariner Hybrid, which was introduced last year, sold only 108 units in the month.

The Ford Mustang sports car recorded another monthly drop, slipping 4.9%, which Pipas says is due to strong year-ago comparisons.

Ford’s F-Series pickup continued to prop-up the auto maker, despite above-average gas prices, with sales climbing 6.6% to 59,836 units. Pipas estimates 20% of F-Series sales are fleet, but says both the fleet and retail mix benefited from sales last month.

Ford says it plans to build 890,000 vehicles in second-quarter 2006 (325,000 cars/565,000 trucks), down from 906,000 units (294,000 cars/612,000 trucks) in like-2005.

The auto maker continues to hold firm to first-quarter plans to build 320,000 cars and 565,000 trucks.