General Motors, Ford and Chrysler recorded single-digit-percentage sales increases in March as resilient consumers, gradual economic growth and a recovering housing market powered sales.
Ford said its U.S. sales increased 5.7 percent in March, or just under the robust expectations for the overall industry, as sales of the Ford Fusion midsize sedan topped 30,000 units and pickup sales surged.
"Full-size pickup demand continues gaining momentum, outperforming the industry for the third consecutive month," Ken Czubay, Ford's U.S. sales and marketing chief, said in a statement.
General Motors reported a 6.4 percent sales gain for the month, buoyed by a 31 percent sales increase of crossovers and a whopping 49 percent increase for Cadillac and a 37 percent increase for Buick.
The company recorded an 8 percent increase for its most popular vehicle, the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, and a 0.2 percent decrease for its sister truck, the GMC Sierra. Both trucks will be replaced with redesigned versions in the second quarter.
Automotive industry sales for March are widely expected to show more evidence that consumer confidence remains strong despite wrangling in Washington over the national debt and the budget.
Analysts are predicting that U.S. industry sales increased by about 8 percent in March compared with the same month a year ago. That would translate into an annualized rate of more than 15.3 million cars, or about 6 percent more than the 14.5 million new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. last year.
Chrysler sales of its cars and trucks increased 5 percent in March as the automaker kept its streak of 36 consecutive year-over-year monthly sales increases alive.
In March, the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker faced a shortage of inventory on some models, especially for the Jeep brand. Still, Chrysler sold 171,606 new cars and trucks in the U.S. last month, the most of any month since December 2007.
"Chrysler Group has now achieved year-over-year sales gains in every month for the past three years," Reid Bigland, Chrysler's head of U.S. sales, said in a statement. "In spite of limited inventory last month on some of our most popular models, we also managed to record our strongest monthly sales since December 2007."
Chrysler's performance was led by its Ram and Dodge brands, with sales increasing 24 percent and 15 percent respectively. Sales of the company's Fiat brand rose 3 percent, while Chrysler's sales fell 2 percent and Jeep sales fell 13 percent.
The company sold more than 8,000 Dodge Darts in March, the most of any month since the compact car was launched last summer.
For GM, Chevy sales edged up 0.5 percent, but several vehicles posted sales declines for the month. Sales of the struggling Chevy Malibu fell 22 percent to 18,539, adding urgency to a forthcoming redesign confirmed last week by GM North America President Mark Reuss.
The company's recently refreshed crossovers posted strong results. The Chevrolet Traverse rose 54 percent to 10,944, the GMC Acadia rose 77 percent to 10,006, and the Buick Enclave rose 55 percent to 5,676.
GM sold 3,003 units of the Buick Encore in the compact crossover's second full month on the market.
The Cadillac ATS compact sedan, introduced in mid-2012, achieved its best month yet with sales of 3,587 units. The CTS, which will be replaced with a longer and more premium version in the fall, fell 38 percent to 2,791 units.
"GM delivered its best March sales in five years thanks to a strengthening economy and new products, and we are expecting our third consecutive increase in market share versus last year," said Kurt McNeil, vice president of U.S. sales operations, in a statement. "Sales of smaller cars have been robust for some time. Trucks have improved in lockstep with the housing market and the strength of the crossover market signals that America's families are more confident about their financial health."
Volkswagen said its sales increased 3.1 percent and marked the German automaker's 31st month in a row of year-over-year sales increases.
Nissan said its sales increased 1 percent as it sold 137,726 cars and trucks in March. Sales of its Altima midsize sedan topped 37,000.
Edmunds.com expects March to be the biggest single month since 1,555,945 new cars and trucks were sold in May 2007. It is also the fifth consecutive month that the pace of car and truck sales in the U.S. will exceed 15 million.
"Car shoppers seem unfazed by fiscal issues in the news," Lacey Plache, chief economist for Edmunds.com said in a report. "Even though consumer confidence has been up and down so far this year, there are 'wealth effects' that are making Americans feel comfortable finally buying the new cars they've been waiting for."
Plache said that many people are feeling wealthier thanks to rising home prices and the strong stock market. Also, the improving labor market has put additional cash in some buyers' pockets. And credit has been loosening more and more since the recovery began, which is key to car sales.
LMC Automotive said the industry's strong sales pace for the first three months of the year should set the tone for the full year.
"Building on the current performance, we expect the economic environment to improve throughout 2013, as the likelihood of a dark cloud slowing the recovery pace diminishes," Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive, said in a recent report. "Consumers do not appear phased by head winds from Washington, as growth in auto sales are outperforming earlier expectations."
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