U.S. light-vehicle sales rose 6 percent to 1.54 million units in March, exceeding analysts’ forecasts and signaling the auto industry has shaken off its sluggish start to 2014.
The seasonally adjusted sales rate -- a broad gauge of the industry’s health -- surged to 16.4 million units from 15.3 million units a year ago. It’s the best showing for the SAAR since November 2013 and among the highest in the past seven years.
Overall, U.S. car sales rose 1 percent and light-truck deliveries advanced 11 percent last month.
Among major automakers, Chrysler Group led the advances with a 13 percent rise, followed by Nissan Motor Co.’s 8 percent gain. Ford Motor Co. was up 3 percent, General Motors advanced 4 percent and Toyota Motor Corp. chalked up a 5 percent increase in recording their first increases of the year.
Dealers began tracking more showroom traffic and on their lots in the second half of the month as temperatures climbed and snow began melting in more populated pockets of the country, automakers said.
“March sales turned noticeably higher mid-month and finished strong,” John Felice, Ford's vice president for U.S. marketing, sales and service, said in a statement. “It was encouraging to all of us -- after a softer January, February; the spring market kind of bloomed in March.”
GM -- ending three consecutive months of sales declines in the United States -- said volume rose 3 percent at Chevrolet, 7 percent at GMC and 13 percent at Buick. Cadillac’s deliveries slid 6 percent.
GM, dogged by several high-profile recalls during the month that have sparked safety investigations, said its retail sales rose 7 percent in March. The company's fleet sales fell 5 percent due to a planned reduction in rental deliveries.
However, GM's commercial fleet sales climbed 5 percent -- the fifth consecutive monthly increase.
Analysts and automakers said the industry’s rebound from January and February, when severe cold and record snowfall in large parts of the country dented showroom traffic, was impressive.
March sales were also aided by five full weekends during the month.
“Solid March sales pushed first-quarter industry results ahead of last year’s pace despite one of the harshest winters on record,” Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager, said in a statement. “Toyota dealers had their two best sales weekends of the year late in the month, and we’re optimistic that momentum will spring us in into April.”
Nissan’s 8 percent advance snapped a five-month run of double-digit sales gains in the U.S. market. Still, the Japanese automaker set a monthly U.S. sales record of 149,136 units, with the Nissan brand jumping 8 percent and Infiniti advancing 13 percent.
The company credited double-digit increases in sales of the Rogue crossover, Juke compact crossover and Sentra compact car, as well as strong demand for the mid-sized Altima sedan.
Ford Motor said its retail volume rose 3 percent to 166,030 units. Demand increased 3 percent at the Ford division and 31 percent at Lincoln. Fusion deliveries hit an all-time record of 32,963, Ford said.
F series tops 70,000
Sales of the F-series pickup increased 5 percent to 70,940.
Strong demand for Jeeps and the Ram pickup helped Chrysler Group extend its streak of U.S. gains to 48 months.
Ram pickup deliveries rose 26 percent last month, and sales at Jeep climbed 47 percent to 57,983 units -- the best month ever for the brand. The introduction of the mid-sized Cherokee and revamped 2014 Grand Cherokee have bolstered Jeep deliveries in recent months.
Overall, Chrysler's truck sales rose 34 percent, but car volume skidded 25 percent.
Deliveries rose 24 percent at the Fiat brand, 1 percent at Dodge, and 29 percent at the Ram brand, while volume dropped 23 percent at the Chrysler brand.
The company's sales have been spurred by new product launches and some of the industry's highest incentives.
Chrysler offered average incentives of $5,598 on the Ram 1500 pickup last month, Bloomberg reported on Monday, citing data that dealers provided to J.D. Power and Associates.
“We are entering the spring selling season on a high note," Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales for Chrysler Group, said in a statement.
Hyundai Motor America blamed weather for a 2 percent drop in its March sales.
Bob Pradzinski, vice president of national sales for Hyundai Motor America, said the company's pace of retail sales accelerated during the second half of March.
He added those gains are forecast "to continue throughout the month of April."