Automakers led by Chrysler, Nissan and General Motors posted higher March sales on Tuesday, with demand for smaller, fuel-efficient models, redesigned vehicles and pickups driving the gains.
Chrysler Group said its U.S. sales rose 34 percent, its fifth straight month with an increase at least that high. At GM, sales climbed 12 percent, with advances at Chevrolet and GMC offsetting declines at Buick and Cadillac. Ford Motor Co. said demand was up 5 percent, and Nissan North America jumped 12.5 percent.
Volkswagen AG said the VW brand's U.S. sales advanced 35 percent in March--the seventh consecutive month sales have climbed by that amount or more.
The initial results follow analysts' projections that the seasonally adjusted sales rate for March will reach 14.5 million units. That's up from 13.06 million a year earlier but down from 15.1 million in February.
"The combination of credit availability, an improving economy, pent-up demand and even higher fuel prices encouraging people to acquire newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles are all helping to drive industry sales," Reid Bigland, head of the Dodge brand and U.S. sales operations for Chrysler, said in a statement.
Chrysler said deliveries at the Jeep brand surged 36 percent, and Ram pickup sales rose 18 percent despite gasoline prices that are climbing toward the record highs of 2008. At the Chrysler brand, volume soared 70 percent. Sales of the Fiat 500 minicar line reached 3,712 units--the model's best showing to date.
Chrysler is also benefiting from some of the highest incentives in the industry. TrueCar estimates Chrysler spent an average $3,137 in incentives per model last month, up 5.6 percent from a year ago.
GM said its car sales increased 22 percent, with small and compact car deliveries up a combined 62 percent. GM's full-sized pickup sales rose 14 percent.
At Ford, car sales rose 8 percent, truck demand increased 11 percent and deliveries of utility vehicles advanced 6 percent.
U.S. light vehicle demand had increased 14 percent to 2.06 million units this year through February.
Higher inventory levels, new models and favorable lease deals are also helping to drive sales, analysts say.
AutoNation Inc.--the nation's largest new-car dealership group--raised its 2012 forecast for U.S. sales today from 14 million units to a range of about 14.4 million to 14.7 million.
The company said its retail new vehicle sales rose 15 percent in March to 25,489 units.
In addition, mild weather across much of the country and improving consumer sentiment--fueled by rising stock prices and employment gains--provided a lift to industry sales last month.
And the rise in gasoline prices is prompting some consumers to trade in gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient cars and light truck models, automakers say.
GM said Tuesday it tallied a record 100,000 light vehicles that achieve highway fuel economy of 30 mpg or more in March.
Hyundai expects to record more than 65,000 sales in March, a monthly record for the brand. Hyundai last week projected that sales of models that achieve 40 mpg on the highway rose 50 percent or more last month.
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