DETROIT -- U.S. car shoppers took a wait-and-see approach in April. They eased up on purchases as the lure of big incentives faded and hoped summer would bring a new flurry of deals.
Automakers will have to match incentives from Toyota at least through Memorial Day. Toyota said Monday it will continue to offer zero-percent financing and two years of free maintenance on the Camry, Corolla and other vehicles through June 1. It's also offering unprecedented deals on its Lexus luxury brand, including special lease offers, a $1,000 loyalty award for previous owners and a six-month waiver on payments.
The industry stayed on the road to recovery in April, with sales up 20 percent over last April's dismal numbers and most major automakers seeing double-digit gains, according to AutoData Corp. But sales slipped 8 percent from March, when Toyota launched record-high incentives after a series of safety recalls.
Incentives continued in April but were 5 percent lower as automakers reined in spending on promotions. Jessica Caldwell, an industry analyst with auto information website Edmunds.com, said incentives generally lose their luster after a few weeks.
"April gave us a sense of what true demand is out there," Caldwell said. "There was no holiday weekend and it was tax time. The sales we got in March were not really sustainable."
Toyota says it will continue offering higher incentives in the short term. But in the longer term, the company plans to focus less on the deals and more on its vehicles' attributes. "Long term we've got to rebuild the brand to remove any questions or cautions consumers have on the street," Toyota group vice president Bob Carter said Monday.
Toyota's continuation of its incentives indicates the company has doubts about its sales, said Erich Merkle, president of the consulting company Autoconomy.com. But he doesn't expect widespread adoption of aggressive incentive campaigns. Sales are rebounding and most automakers have low inventories, Merkle said. In the past, automakers used incentives to sell down bloated inventories.
"Automakers are being very cautious," he said.
Even though incentives fell in April, Ford Motor cited a recent University of Michigan consumer survey that indicated the number of people who think it's a good time to buy a car is at a five-year high.
And there were still plenty of bargains. Honda Motor Co. spent a record $1,787 per vehicle in April, while Toyota spent $2,498, down $245 from record-high levels in March, Edmunds.com said. General Motors Co. spent $3,273 per vehicle, but that was skewed by high incentives on the brands it is discontinuing.
Toyota's sales rose 24 percent for April but slowed 16 percent from March, a steeper decline than some others reported.
Ford's April sales rose 25 percent. Ford said F-Series sales jumped 42 percent thanks to the new Super Duty truck. GM also reported an 8 percent jump in full-size pickup sales.
Pickup sales are an indicator of economic health, Merkle said. "We're seeing an increase in construction jobs, we're seeing homes built starting to improve. With that you also see pickup truck sales starting to improve," he said.
GM said sales climbed 6.4 percent. After taking out brands the automaker is phasing out or selling, GM sales rose 20 percent thanks to new products like the Chevrolet Equinox and Buick LaCrosse. GM's four remaining brands are Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac.
Dan Strumpf of the Associated Press contributed to this report.