There are hints of a thaw, but the hoped-for throngs of formerly snowbound buyers aren't beating down dealership doors yet.
In the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, where three feet of snow have fallen in the last 30 days, March sales are "not good," says Patrick Farrell, a salesman at Egglefield Bros. Ford in Elizabethtown. "The weather hasn't turned yet."
Looking at U.S. sales through the first half of March, forecasters don't see a surge in sales strong enough to rescue first-quarter results. Unusually harsh winter weather slammed January and February auto sales in most of the country.
Where the economy is strong and the weather is good, there are exceptions.
Mike Good, general manager of Street Toyota in Amarillo, Texas, said his sales rose 15 to 20 percent in the first half of March.
"Our local economy is strong," he said. "Weather here hasn't been a factor save a couple of dust storms."
But analysts worry about the March SAAR.
"If we're going to reach our expectation of 16.3 million sales for the full year, we need to see a SAAR of 16 million or so in March," said analyst Alec Gutierrez of Kelley Blue Book. "Based on the first 14 days, we're closer to 15.6 million."
LMC Automotive and J.D. Power and Associates jointly forecast March's selling rate at 15.8 million. Larry Dominique, executive vice president of TrueCar.com, declined to make a March forecast, but said 13-day sales "aren't as high as a 16 million SAAR."
All three forecasters see March volume as a critical test of U.S. sales momentum. After three years of double-digit gains, 2013 auto sales grew 8 percent to 15.6 million light vehicles, and most analysts expect even slower gains in 2014.
But flat February volume followed a 3 percent decline in January.
If all the weakness is because consumers couldn't get to dealerships, better weather should unleash that pent-up demand.
If it doesn't, automakers may conclude that underlying demand is weaker than anticipated and cut production and raise incentives to work off the higher-than-normal inventories that have piled up on snowy dealer lots.
Last week, LMC cut its full-year forecast to 16.1 million, from 16.2 million, citing both weather-affected retail sales and a lower mix of fleet sales. Kelley Blue Book's 16.3 million forecast is under review for a possible downgrade after March, and perhaps April, sales are in, Gutierrez said.
The bulk of March sales will be in the last half of the month, so manufacturers can boost volume with targeted month-end incentives, he said. Industry per-vehicle incentives averaged $2,700 in February, up $200 from a year ago and Gutierrez expects March to run $150 to $200 higher as well.
TrueCar.com says March incentives are up about 5 percent from a year ago. Dominique says that's appropriate to work down weather-swollen stocks, "but an extra $100 a car is tough on the bottom line for a manufacturer."
Neither Dominque nor Gutierrez believes the industry is in danger of returning to the early-2000s culture of big incentives and chronic overproduction.
U.S. automakers started March with a 76-day supply of vehicles, six days higher than the 22-year average for that date. Incentives were up moderately, but Kelley Blue Book said the average transaction price so far in March is $32,100, $500 higher than last March.
"This is not a long-term strategic shift in incentives, but a short-term tactical response to settle some inventory issues," Gutierrez said.
Street Toyota's Good said his dealer 20 group meeting last week also was upbeat: "Everybody says March has come on strong in both volume and gross compared to January and February."
Gutierrez said the industry is healthy even if full-year sales growth slows.
"At the end of the day, the industry is still in a great spot," he said. "And 2014 will still be a very good year."