UPDATED: 4/1/14 6:26 pm ET
The snow melted. Car buyers dug themselves out. And the U.S. auto industry dragged itself back to first-quarter growth with a 6 percent sales increase in March.
The 1.5 million light vehicles sold in March pushed the seasonally adjusted annualized selling rate to 16.4 million -- the best SAAR in four months and the second-highest in seven years. And after a 3 percent decline in January and a flat February, booming month-end volume helped March far exceed analysts’ forecasts, which last week ranged from 15.6 million to 15.9 million.
“We expected a bounce-back, but we got that and then some,” said Alec Gutierrez, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book, who had forecast a March SAAR of 15.6 million.
Forecasters feeling better
Gutierrez is now more comfortable about Kelley Blue Book’s full-year forecast of 16.3 million. He had expressed concern when January’s SAAR was 15.3 million and February’s was 15.4 million.
Larry Dominique, executive vice president of TrueCar.com, said he is also more confident about reaching his company’s 16.1 million 2014 forecast after March.
“This is good growth, not super growth,” he said. “But I’m concerned after this quarter about what kind of incentives it would take for the industry to get much more than that above 16 million.”
Gutierrez and Dominique put March incentives above $2,700 per vehicle, up 8 percent, but said that was a reasonable response to automakers working off a mild buildup of inventory after weather-related slow sales during winter.
Dragged into the black
March didn’t just lift the industry into a positive first three months. Better March sales pulled Hyundai-Kia, BMW Group and Chrysler’s Dodge/Ram combo into positive territory for the year so far from negative numbers after the first two months.
The Korean twin brands were down more than 2,500 units through February, but 4 percent March growth gives them a 1 percent gain year to date. Similarly, an 11 percent March surge gave Dodge/Ram, formerly the Dodge division, a 3 percent increase year to date after being down 2 percent through February.
BMW Group was down about 1,500 units the first two months, but an 8 percent gain in March pulled that to a 3 percent gain in the first quarter.
And Mazda just missed. March sales rose 9 percent, pulling it from a 7 percent loss through two months to within 224 units of breakeven through March.
Luxury leadership is a horse race
BMW used a hot March to slash Mercedes-Benz’ lead to 237 units in the perennial race for the best-selling luxury brand in the United States.
Excluding Sprinter commercial vans, Mercedes sold 72,614 and BMW brand 72,377 in the first quarter. BMW won the U.S. luxury crown in 2011 and 2012 but Mercedes-Benz unseated it in 2013 by selling 312,528 units, a margin of 3,248.
Camry back on top
The Toyota Camry reclaimed its best-selling position among passenger cars, outselling the Nissan Altima by 6,032 units in March. For the first three months, it now leads Altima by just less than 5,000 units, 94,283 to 89,285.
Hot and cold
March results were uneven.
Jeep and Fiat brands had their best-ever sales months, helping Chrysler Group sales jump 13 percent. Nissan also had its best U.S. sales month, helping its entire sales group match the feat.
But American Honda fell 2 percent in March, dropping its market share 0.7 points to 8.7 percent. It also fell to No. 6 on the automaker sales chart, below surging Nissan.
And Volkswagen brand dropped another 3 percent, largely negating a brisk gain of 9 percent by sister Porsche and 8 percent by Audi.
Ram’s grand slam
With a 26 percent March gain, Chrysler’s Ram outsold the industry’s No. 2 pickup, the Chevrolet Silverado, by 285 units -- 42,532 to 42,247. That last month that happened? August 1999.
March this year has 26 “selling days” compared with 27 last year. But this March had five weekends instead of four.
Starting this month, Tesla sales are estimated by the Automotive News Data Center. The maverick electric vehicle maker still won’t report its U.S. sales monthly, but there is enough information available to estimate volume.