In March 2012, the light-vehicle SAAR came in at 14.1 million.
And the 3 percent monthly gain lagged the forecast for a 4.2 percent March advance -- the average estimate of 10 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.
Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said today that a late-month blast of wintry weather in some parts of the country may have curbed showroom traffic.
"New car sales will continue to pace growth in the U.S. economy during the first half of the year, as consumers absorb the payroll and income tax increases and continue to spend more this year," Taylor said.
The rise in U.S. stock indices and home prices this year -- coupled with mortgage refinancing -- is lifting household wealth and serving as a boost to new car and light-truck demand.
"The industry is being fueled by cars, credit and confidence," Toyota's Carter said. "People are back in the mood for buying new cars."
At Jaguar Land Rover North America, March sales increased 4 percent, with sales for the year rising 14 percent. The new BRZ sports car and Crosstrek crossover, along with the redesigned Forester, helped lift March sales at Subaru 13 percent.
While demand slipped for some of Honda's core models -- Civic, CR-V and Odyssey -- Honda officials maintain they are still winning the race in retail sales amid stiff competition.
"It's particularly rewarding to see Accord and Civic winning new customers against a headwind of competitor incentives and value-reducing fleet sales," said John Mendel, executive vice president of sales at American Honda.
Solid start to 2013
Light-vehicle sales have now climbed 6 percent to 3.69 million units this year through March. Car sales have climbed 3 percent, while light-truck deliveries have risen 10 percent.
GM on Tuesday maintained its 2013 outlook for U.S. light-vehicle sales of 15 million to 15.5 million units.
"Sales of smaller cars have been robust for some time," said Kurt McNeil, vice president of U.S. sales operations for GM. "Trucks have improved in lockstep with the housing market and the strength of the crossover market signals that America's families are more confident about their financial health."
Among major automakers, GM, Ford, Toyota, Chrysler and VW have gained U.S. market share this year through March, while Nissan and Hyundai-Kia have lost ground. Honda's share remains unchanged at 9.2 percent.
Sales in March were flat at the Toyota division while Lexus volume rose 15 percent. Toyota's results reflected the second-consecutive double-digit decline in Camry sales.
The Camry also ceded its rank as America's best-selling mid-sized car for the first time in 17 months. It slipped behind the Nissan Altima by 100 units and lost share to the Accord and Fusion.
Mid-sized sedan shootout
Through the first quarter, Camry U.S. sales are more than 12,000 units ahead of its nearest competitor, the redesigned Accord.
The mid-sized sedan market has heated up over the last 18 months with the introduction of the redesigned Camry, Malibu, Altima, Accord, Fusion and Mazda6.
"Long gone are the days when you saw Camry as the perennial winner by a big margin," Al Castignetti, Nissan's vice president of U.S. sales, told Bloomberg on Tuesday. "We'll all fight for that pie, and it will be more of an equal pie now that we'll all share in."
Toyota's results were also hurt by a 23-percent drop in Prius hybrid demand, with company officials citing a decline in gasoline prices and less aggressive marketing in March.
Cadillac set the pace at GM, with sales up 50 percent, followed by a 37 percent rise at Buick. GMC rose 12 percent while volume edged up 0.5 percent at Chevrolet, GM's biggest division.
Car sales, down 3 percent, were the only drag on GM's results last month.
While the company benefited from deliveries of the new Cadillac ATS, Chevrolet Spark and Buick Enclave, sales of the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick Regal slumped.
2 records at Ford
At Ford, volume at the Ford division rose 7 percent, but Lincoln deliveries were down 23 percent as supplies of the redesigned MKZ remained tight.
Sales of the Fusion mid-sized sedan and Escape crossover set all-time monthly records, and F-series pickup deliveries climbed 16 percent, Ford said.
Overall, Ford Motor's car sales slipped 0.2 percent, while utility deliveries advanced 14 percent and truck volume rose 6 percent, the company said.
Chrysler Group, helped by strong car and Ram pickup volume, said its March deliveries rose 5 percent, extending the company's stretch of U.S. sales gains to a record 36 months.
The sales milestone tops a previous U.S. sales streak of 35 consecutive months from February 1992 through December 1994, Chrysler said.
The automaker's car sales rose 21 percent, while light-truck volume slid 2 percent last month.
Deliveries rose 3 percent at the Fiat brand and 15 percent at Dodge.
Sales of the Ram pickup jumped 25 percent to 33,831, an all-time monthly record, helping overall Ram brand sales rise 24 percent.
But volume slipped 2 percent at the Chrysler brand and 13 percent at Jeep.
It was the sixth straight monthly sales decline at Jeep. The discontinuation of the Jeep Liberty SUV in August 2012 and the launch of a refreshed Grand Cherokee have dampened Jeep inventories and sales.
The March results come as some analysts and automakers raise their industry sales forecast for the year, citing diminishing risks from Europe's economic woes, higher taxes and federal budget talks in Washington.
Brett Hoselton, an analyst with KeyBanc, raised his 2013 industry U.S. sales forecast today to 15.2 million units from 15.0 million units.
"A confluence of favorable indicators drives our optimism, such as pent-up demand from an aging fleet, strength in the housing market, widespread credit availability, stable fuel prices and unaffected consumer purchasing habits from higher taxes," Hoselton said in a report.
"Incentive activity remains well managed as average transaction prices continued to increase above the increase in incentives, a positive for the gross profit outlook," he added.