Auto sales surge in March, led by small cars

In a Feb. 29, 2012 photo, Fiat 500 vehicles are displayed at the Golling Fiat dealership in Birmingham, Mich. Chrysler Group was the first automaker to report sales Tuesday, April 3, 2012. Its U.S. sales jumped 34 percent in March on strong sales of Fiat small cars and Chrysler sedans. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
In a Feb. 29, 2012 photo, Fiat 500 vehicles are displayed at the Golling Fiat dealership in Birmingham, Mich. Chrysler Group was the first automaker to report sales Tuesday, April 3, 2012. Its U.S. sales jumped 34 percent in March on strong sales of Fiat small cars and Chrysler sedans. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Posted: April 04, 2012

DETROIT - The auto industry looks set to ride the appeal of smaller cars to its best monthly performance in almost four years.

General Motors Co. said Tuesday that its U.S. sales rose 12 percent in March on solid demand for cars and small crossovers that achieve 30 miles per gallon or better on the highway. Chrysler Group's sales jumped 34 percent as buyers went for Fiat small cars and Chrysler sedans. Sales at Ford Motor Co. rose 5 percent as sales of the Focus small car rose sharply compared with a year ago.

Americans who couldn't bear a new car payment during the economic downturn are back on the market. With gas above $4 in some parts of the U.S., buyers are leaning toward new fuel-efficient compacts like the Chevrolet Cruze and subcompacts such as the Honda Fit to save money. Also, incentives on trucks are good enough to lure buyers who want something bigger.

The consulting firm LMC Automotive predicts U.S. sales of new cars and trucks reached 1.37 million last month, up 6 percent from March of 2011 and the highest number since May of 2008. Industry analysts say sales could run at an annual rate of 14.1 million to 14.5 million vehicles, continuing the strong performance in January and February.

For Chrysler, it was the best month for the company in four years, while Ford had its best March performance since 2007. Nissan reported all-time record sales. Toyota and Honda release figures later.

Chrysler says Fiat sales hit 3,712, compared to just 500 last March when the car was first on the market. The subcompact Fiat is growing in popularity as new dealerships open and fuel prices rise.

Compact and subcompact models combined are expected to account for 23 percent of retail sales for March, according to LMC.

Sales of Chrysler's 200 and 300 sedans each doubled over last March. Both cars have recently been revamped and have better fuel economy than previous models, which is attracting new buyers. Jeep brand sales rose 36 percent on the strength of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Ford says sales of the F-Series pickup, which is the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., rose 9 percent. Truck sales are up as small businesses and construction crews continue to grow more confident about the economic recovery.

Incentives also helped boost truck sales. Chrysler said its Ram pickup sales were up 23 percent over last March.

March also saw more growth in loans to subprime buyers. Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold wrote in a note to investors that non-prime buyers, or those with less than stellar credit, are coming back into the market after being shut out for several years due to lack of loan availability.

Nissan Motor Co. said sales were up 12.5 percent to 136,317, making it the best month in Nissan's history. Sales were boosted by higher than usual incentives, which TrueCar.com estimated at $3,115 per vehicle. Nissan is trying to sell off its remaining Altima sedans before a new Altima goes on sale in July. Industry incentives averaged $2,440 per vehicle.

Volkswagen AG said its sales rose 35 percent to 36,588, the company's best March sales since 1973. Volkswagen saw big gains with the new Passat sedan and the new Beetle.

Subaru of America Inc., based in Cherry Hill, reported record March sales of 32,387 vehicles, a 20.33 percent gain from a year ago.

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