U.S. light-vehicle sales jumped 12 percent in the first quarter, capping a remarkable 12 months upended by a pandemic, with the industry's latest gains coming despite falling inventories caused by a worldwide shortage of semiconductor chips, forcing automakers to idle output.
Light trucks continue to drive the market, along with demand for luxury models -- up 20 percent -- that outpaced the broader market in the first quarter. Overall, robust retail volume continues to offset weak fleet shipments.
Toyota Motor Corp. sales rebounded sharply and American Honda, Subaru, Kia and Hyundai set U.S. records last month, signaling the industry’s robust advance from a pandemic-wracked early 2020, even as supply chain woes disrupt output.
In a broad measure of the market's newfound momentum, the seasonally adjusted sales rate came in at 18.08 million last month, Motor Intelligence said, aided by fiscal stimulus, tax refunds & record high use-vehicle prices. Cox Automotive pegged the March SAAR at 17.75 million, with chief economist Jonathan Smoke declaring "the retail market is back."
The SAAR bottomed out early in the pandemic at 8.74 million in April 2020 and has steadily recovered, remaining well over 15 million since September – and often topping 16 million.
First-quarter volume increased at General Motors and edged up 0.6 percent at Ford Motor Co. and 5 percent at FCA US.
At Toyota Motor, March sales jumped 87 percent from a year earlier, while volume more than doubled at brands including Acura, Subaru, Hyundai, Mazda and Lexus. Even long-struggling Nissan managed an increase in the first quarter. And American Honda's record March volume -- 148,538 cars and light trucks -- was 93 percent higher than a year earlier.
The latest gains reflect a mix of market strength as well as favorable comparisons to March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic almost instantly shut down showrooms and consumer demand across the U.S.
This year, a new round of government stimulus is padding household finances, while employment and economic activity continue to bounce back as more Americans get vaccinated.
"Consumer confidence and spending will continue to increase due to stimulus, rising vaccination rates and the progressive reopening of the economy,” Elaine Buckberg, chief economist at General Motors, said in a statement. “Auto demand should remain strong throughout the year.”