DETROIT – U.S. auto sales went out like a lion in March.
Automakers said Tuesday that new car and truck sales picked up speed halfway through the month, culminating in a strong final weekend. Toyota said its dealers had their two best sales weekends of the year at the end of the month.
We’re optimistic that momentum will spring us into April, said Bill Fay, who manages the Toyota division in the U.S.
Industry sales rose 6 percent to 1.5 million vehicles, far outpacing analysts’ expectations.
The sales pace was the fastest since November, according to Autodata Corp. March sales helped rescue what was otherwise a disappointing first quarter.
Analysts had predicted flat growth for the first three months of this year after the harsh winter hurt sales. But March helped pull first quarter sales up 1.4 percent.
The month saw some big gainers. Chrysler’s sales rose 13 percent on demand for Ram pickups and the new Jeep Cherokee SUV. Subaru’s sales were up 21 percent; its new Forester SUV jumped 53 percent to nearly 14,000.
Toyota’s sales rose 5 percent. Sales of the Prius hybrid fell 16 percent as stable gas prices caused consumer interest to wane. But demand for its pickups and SUVs was strong.
General Motors’ sales were up 4 percent despite a series of safety recalls of older-model vehicles. Buick saw double-digit gains because of its new Encore SUV, and sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup rose 7 percent. GM’s southwest Allen County truck assembly plant produces the Silverado and the GMC Sierra.
Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst with the car-shopping site Edmunds.com, said buyer consideration for GM brands on Edmunds’ website has remained steady despite the recall crisis, which is currently the subject of several federal investigations.
Shoppers still see it as a trusted brand, she said.
Nissan’s sales were up 8 percent. Ford’s rose 3 percent, with a 5 percent gain for the F-Series pickup compensating for lower car sales.
Volkswagen’s sales fell 3 percent, while Hyundai and Honda each reported 2 percent declines. All three rely more heavily on sales of cars, which were outsold by trucks and SUVs in March.
While first-quarter sales topped expectations, they didn’t grow as quickly as last year, when the industry saw a 6 percent sales increase in the same three-month period.
Low interest rates and declining unemployment will continue to bring buyers into showrooms, said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for the car-buying site Cars.com.