Ford Motor Co. and General Motors posted the sharpest declines among the major automakers as U.S. sales fell 36.8 percent in March.
Ford's sales dropped 42.1 percent and GM's 44.7 percent -- GMs fifth slide of more than 40 percent in the past six months. Chrysler LLC sales tumbled 39.3 percent, its smallest percentage slide since October. The biggest Japanese automakers all fell between 36 percent and 39 percent.
The results exceeded analysts projections and were aided by what the auto information site Edmunds.com called record-high incentive spending. The seasonally adjusted annual rate of 9.3 million bested Februarys 27-year low of 9.1 million.
Some analysts and company officials said they saw signals that the worst of the industrys 17-month streak of declines may have passed.
"We believe we may be at or near the trough of the industry's year-to-year comparisons but do not see an uptick in industry demand before fourth-quarter 2009 at the earliest," Standard & Poor's equity analyst Efraim Levy said in a note to investors.
Ford economist Emily Kolinski Morris said the company has seen "some encouraging signs" that the pace of economic decline could be moderating. For instance, consumer confidence levels in March stayed flat with the record low reached in February, according to the monthly index conducted since 1967 by the Conference Board, a market information group.
"It's too early to say the market is bottoming out," Kolinski Morris said during a conference call. "Uncertainty remains for the next few months, and the risk of industry restructuring is another wild-card factor."
Ford said it built 349,000 vehicles in the first quarter, 26,000 fewer than estimated in its latest forecast.
Late yesterday, American Honda Motor Co. said it would shut factories for 13 days in May, reducing North American production by 62,000 vehicles.
Hondas March decline was 36.3 percent; Nissan North Americas, 37.7 percent; and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.s, 39 percent.