DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) -- An improving economy and new vehicles like the Ford Explorer propelled Ford Motor Co. to a $2.6 billion profit, its best first-quarter performance since 1998.
The company earned 61 cents per share from January through March, compared with 50 cents per share in the same quarter a year earlier.
The results beat Wall Street's expectations. Analysts surveyed by FactSet were forecasting earnings of $2.1 billion, or 50 cents per share.
Revenues rose 18 percent to $33.1 billion. The company was profitable in all regions, but saw strong growth in Asia, where sales rose 28 percent. Sales rose 12 percent in North America.
"Our team delivered a great quarter, with solid growth and improvements in all regions," Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally said.
The March 11 earthquake in Japan, which has hurt Japanese automakers, has had little impact on Ford so far. Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth said the company has lost production of 12,000 to 14,000 vehicles at its Asian operations, but doesn't expect that to have a major effect on the bottom line. Three Asian assembly plants are closed this week because of parts shortages.
Rising prices of commodities like steel cost the company $300 million in the first quarter, and are expected to increase costs by up to $2 billion by the end of this year. Ford offset some of those increases by raising prices by an average of $117 per vehicle at the end of the first quarter.
Booth said Ford also continued to make progress paying off debt. The company, which took out a $23 billion loan in 2006 to revamp its operations, ended the quarter with $16.6 billion in debt, down $2.5 billion from the beginning of the year.
Ford said it now has $4.7 billion more cash than debt, an improvement of $3.3 billion from the start of this year.