U.S. auto sales rose for the 13th-straight month in March as the industry rode improving weather and strong truck sales to a slim advance despite declines by some major players.
The 0.5 percent increase was the smallest since monthly sales last fell, in February 2014. Among the biggest automakers, only Fiat Chrysler, Toyota Motor Sales and Hyundai-Kia posted gains. But healthy increases by smaller companies -- including Subaru, BMW Group and Daimler AG -- helped push the industry into positive territory.
The seasonally adjusted sales rate came in at 17.1 million -- the third highest since the Great Recession. Analysts had projected that overall sales volume would decline by about 1 percent and pegged the SAAR at about 16.9 million.
"It continues to really look great for the industry," said Jeff Bracken, general manager for Lexus, which recorded an 8.6 percent gain for the month.
That increase helped deliver a 4.9 percent boost for Toyota Motor Sales, which matched the industry with its 13th consecutive monthly gain. Toyota-Scion sales were up 4.4 percent.
“We’re having a hard time keeping up with the demand for luxury utility vehicles,” Bracken said.
Analysts said rising consumer sentiment was reflected in higher transaction prices. TrueCar estimated the average price of a new vehicle in March rose to $32,201, up 2.1 percent from a year earlier.
The industry's sales of light trucks rose 5.3 percent for the month, aided by gasoline prices that are still low by standards of recent years. Passenger car sales were down 4.2 percent.
5 full years for FCA
FCA US capitalized on continued strong demand for Jeeps and Chryslers for a 1.7 percent increase, its 60th straight monthly advance.
Jeep sales rose 23 percent from a year earlier, buoyed by the arrival of the subcompact Jeep Renegade, while Chrysler brand sales increased 15 percent.
Volume was up 1.2 percent at the Ram brand, while dropping 5.2 percent at Fiat and 24 percent at Dodge.
At Nissan Group, a 3 percent decline at the Nissan Division offset a slight gain at Infiniti, for a 2.7 percent corporate decline.
Hyundai tallied a 12 percent increase and sister brand Kia was up 7.3 percent, for a combined 9.9 percent jump.
Daimler’s figure was in the same range, up 9.3 percent, carried by a 10 percent gain at Mercedes-Benz. The Smart small-car brand fell 25 percent.
Subaru, meanwhile, recorded its 40th-consecutive monthly increase, up 10 percent.
Ford Motor Co. declined for the fifth time in seven months. The namesake brand fell 3.6 percent, as all mainstream passenger-car lines except the Mustang lost ground.
F-series pickups were off, too. Sales continue to be pinched by the conversion of a second plant to assemble the redesigned, aluminum-bodied 2015 version.
Lincoln, off 3.1 percent, recorded its second straight drop after five months of increases.
At General Motors, car sales tumbled 21 percent, while sales of higher-profit pickups, vans and SUVs were up 14 percent.
Buick eked out its first gain of the year, up 0.5 percent, while GMC also advanced. Chevrolet, down 3.2 percent, fell for the first time since August; Cadillac dropped 6.8 percent.
Kurt McNeil, U.S. vice president of sales operations, said GM saw truck sales gaining momentum last year.
“Higher demand dovetailed perfectly with the launches of our new full-size pickups and large SUVs. Low fuel prices and the successful launches of the Chevrolet Colorado and Trax made us even more bullish,” said McNeil in GM’s statement.
Car sales were much more challenging. Sales of the Chevrolet Impala sedan dropped 31 percent in March. GM announced sales of the high-volume Chevrolet Malibu fell 12 percent on the day that the carmaker is promoting the vehicle’s eventual replacement at the New York auto show.
Volkswagen Group remained a tale of two brands: Its namesake division continued to struggle, down 18 percent. Luxury sibling Audi meanwhile, extended its winning streak -- 51 straight monthly records -- with a 20 percent advance. Overall VW Group sales fell 6.2 percent.
VW’s Porsche, meanwhile, is extending last year’s double-digit gains into this year as well.
"Our momentum is strong," said Detlev von Platen, CEO of Porsche Cars North America at the New York auto show. "We closed March up 13 percent year to date."
Notable for Porsche: Sales of the Macan crossover, which has been in short supply, jumped considerably from recent months. Porsche sold 1,180 Macans in March, bringing its three-month total to 2,600.
Back at Fiat Chrysler, Reid Bigland, FCA’s head of U.S. sales, told Automotive News last week that it would be tough to extend the streak to 60 months. The automaker had to overcome lost sales of the now-cancelled Dodge Avenger as well as an ongoing shutdown of its minivan plant for retooling, which has put fleet sales of those vehicles on hold.
Bigland said FCA and its dealers would try to “muscle this one out.”
FCA’s U.S. incentives in March averaged $3,451 per vehicle, up 7 percent from a year earlier and 2 percent higher than February, Truecar.com estimated.
“Five years of consecutive monthly year-over-year sales increases is a great symbol of FCA’s commitment to continuous improvement and a tremendous source of pride for our entire organization,” Bigland said in a statement.
Light-vehicle sales in the U.S. rose 9.2 percent for the first two months of the year despite bitter cold in much of the country. Demand has been aided by low interest rates that have reduced borrowing costs.
March's small gain drags the industry's year-to-date increase down to 5.6 percent.
An improving labor market has also contributed to what analysts project will be a sixth straight year of rising U.S. auto sales since the recession. That would mark the industry's longest winning streak since the 1920s.
Editor's note: Some earlier versions of this story understated the Volkswagen brand's percentage decline for March.
David Barkholz, Amy Wilson, Bloomberg and Reuters contributed to this report.