Spring sales thaw spawns optimism for full year

NEW YORK -- Sales thawed out in March and early April after the frigid winter, and auto executives at the auto show here were optimistic about the rest of the year.

They see growing consumer confidence and strong demand for pickups and crossovers. In March, the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate jumped to 16.4 million units, from 15.3 million in March 2013.

"April always falls off after March because of tax season and things like that, but our April is tracking better than our March did," said Dave Zuchowski, CEO of Hyundai Motor America.

Fred Diaz, senior vice president for Nissan sales, marketing, parts and service, said: "A lot of people were in hibernation in January and February, and they came back to us in March. I was a little worried about April after the really strong close we had in March. But the initial early reports for April are coming in pretty strong."

Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, sees pent-up demand from buyers pushed to the sidelines by the hard winter. He expects another record year for BMW.

"In our view, it is a growing market," he said.

Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, said consumer confidence is strong and should grow. "As we continue to add jobs, confidence will increase," he said. "We are bullish on how the economy will be for the rest of the year, and it will make up for January and February."

Duncan Aldred, Buick-GMC's sales chief, is not convinced industry sales will continue their upward trajectory.

"I think it's plateauing some more," said Aldred, who has been visiting Buick-GMC dealers in several states since moving to Detroit from his previous job as managing director of Vauxhall Motors in England.

Nissan's Diaz says the traditional spring and summer selling months will help decide just how much U.S. auto sales will grow this year.

"The next 90 days are going to show a lot about the strength of the industry," Diaz said. "The past four years of recovery have seen double-digit growth. I don't see another double-digit increase this year. I see a single-digit growth. But I think the next 90 days are going to tell us how much."

Lindsay Chappell, Mike Colias, Dave Guilford and Diana T. Kurylko contributed to this report.

You can reach Ryan Beene at autonews@crain.com

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