But automakers paid heavily for March's slight gain in the selling rate.
Factories have never put more cash on the hood — $3,169 per vehicle, up 30 percent from March 2008 and $171 from February — according to Edmunds.com.
GM and Chrysler led the pack with average incentives of almost $5,000 per vehicle, a corporate high for GM. But they had plenty of company. Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. almost doubled incentives from March 2008 to $1,601. Nissan North America and Ford Motor Co. hiked theirs about 20 percent. Among the six largest automakers, only American Honda Motor Co. moderated incentives, up 6 percent to $1,306.
In other March results:
-- Hyundai-Kia Automotive closed to within 1,200 units of Nissan-Infiniti sales. The Korean automaker's offer to let buyers who lose their jobs return the keys limited sales losses last month. Sales of the two brands combined were down 3.3 percent to 65,445 units. But the average incentive level for Hyundai and Kia jumped 68 percent to $3,572, Edmunds.com said.
-- Cars continued to outsell light trucks: 463,938 cars to 394,044 trucks. That gives cars a 54.1-45.9 edge in March, compared with a 51.8-48.2 split in March 2008.
-- The Detroit 3 continued to lose market share, but mostly to Koreans and Europeans. GM, Ford and Chrysler sold 379,814 vehicles in March for a 44.3 percent share of the U.S. market, a loss of 4.1 share points since last March. Korean brands gained 2.6 points to a 7.6 percent share. Europeans captured 8.6 percent of the market, up from 7.2 percent. Japanese brands picked up 39.5 percent, up a tenth of a point.
-- Sales tanked again for GM's cast-off brands. The brands GM is trying to sell all lost more than half their volume: Hummer fell 75.9 percent; Saturn, 59.6 percent; and Saab, 57.3 percent. But it didn't matter much. With those three brands, GM's March decline was 44.7 percent. Without them, GM lost 43.0 percent.
Jamie LaReau, Amy Wilson and Bradford Wernle contributed to this report