Signs of U.S. market strength are starting to emerge, Ford officials say, evidenced by rising average transaction prices and an industry projected to run in the high 16 million- to 17 million-unit range for the month.

However, the automaker has been pacing behind the industry overall so far in 2014, with light-vehicle sales through April down 2.4% in a market that was up 3.1%. in the period.

May results find the automaker still in the red vs. year-ago, with sales of 247,114 units down 1.3% on a daily-rate basis, according to WardsAuto data, although the tally included stronger performances from the Ford Fusion/Lincoln MKZ midsize sedans, Escape CUV and Explorer SUV.

Part of May’s solid industry showing can be attributed to the calendar, which saw five weekends, including the long Memorial Day holiday, bolster showroom traffic.

But there also are some signs of strengthening fundamentals, including the combination of escalating SAARs and climbing ATPs, Ford officials say. Industry-wide, ATPs are up $1,200 from year-ago to $30,000, according to the automaker.

“(That trend) would suggest demand is becoming a little bit more elastic – we’re getting away from pent-up demand and into more discretionary purchases from consumers,” notes Emily Kolinski Morris, Ford’s senior economist.

Most of the pricing strength is on the truck side, but incentive activity on cars also is easing, pushing segment ATPs upward there as well, notes John Felice, Ford vice president-U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service.

“We’re very encouraged with what we see, especially after the slow start in January and February,” he says. “Trucks are very solid, a little less so on cars.”

Rising transaction prices is why Ford cautions analysts on a call to discuss monthly results to look beyond the 10.1% drop in F-Series daily sales.

Ford has the highest ATPs (at $40,000 per unit) vs. Chevrolet and Ram, Erich Merkle, Ford’s U.S. sales analyst says, while its incentives ($4,000 per truck) are the lowest.

“So the segment is stronger than the sales data suggests,” he says.

Market analysts have been concerned whether Ford will manage the sell-down and balance production and inventory on the current F-150 as plants undergo extensive changeovers to the new aluminum-intensive model for ’15.

That transition will force 13 weeks of downtime at F-Series plants this year. Both the Dearborn, MI, and Kansas City, MO, plants will be retooled for the new pickup, but Felice says Ford is positioned perfectly.

“We’ve been planning this for a long time to get us through this period, not only at Dearborn this year, but Kansas City next year,” Felice says. “We’re right on plan with where want to be.”

Highlights for the month included the Fusion, which posted its best May ever on strength in the Western region, particularly California where retail sales jumped 50% in volume. The current-generation Explorer topped the 20,000 mark for the first time, with New York, its strongest market, recording a 21% volume gain.

Lincoln also is inching upward, with the MKZ continuing to gain, posting a 13% rise in retail volume that included a 33% jump in the West.

Ford says its fleet mix held at its year-to-date pace of 31%, including 12% rental, 13% commercial and 6% government.

Inventories ended the month at 643,000 units, down from 650,000 in April and 558,000 year-ago. Cars account for 30.5% of Ford’s current stock, compared with 32.8% at the end of April and 29.2% in like-2013.

dzoia@wardsauto.com