Higher gas prices drove strong March car sales especially those of fuel-efficient models. Automakers in the U.S. sold 1.4 million vehicles, an increase of 12.7 percent from the year-ago March. That put the Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate of car sales (SAAR) at 14.3 million, compared with 13 million even last March.
March results were below Edmunds.com's forecast of 14.9 million as the closing weekend wasn't as strong as anticipated and not as strong as the last weekend of February, which took analysts and automakers by surprise. Still, March was the best sales month since August 2007, closing the best first quarter since 2008.
March and the first quarter provide optimism for the rest of the year. "Everything points to pent-up demand being released," said Edmunds.com Senior Analyst Jessica Caldwell. The age of trade-ins for new models — about six years old — has been at the highest sustained level ever seen since Edmunds.com began collecting data in 2002. Credit scores are dropping, suggesting consumers who may not have qualified for a car loan before are in the market. A plus for automakers is that consumers are coming into dealerships to buy, not because they simply were lured by "the deal." Edmunds.com's proprietary True Cost of Incentives (TCI) is down 31 percent from its 2009 peak of $3,100 per vehicle. That goes to the bottomline of automaker profits. And for consumers, a wide array of vehicles in all segments with vastly improved fuel economy is available.
"March was the litmus test for 2012 after a strong January and very strong February," noted Caldwell. "The fact that we continue to see pent-up demand unleashed bodes well for the rest of the year."
Here's a look at how major automakers performed in March.
General Motors: General Motors reported March sales of 231,052 vehicles, up 12 percent from a year ago, underperforming expectations.
GM did well in the compact, midsize and compact crossover SUV segments, areas where Japanese automakers traditionally do better than domestic brands. GM's monthly sales included a record 100,000 cars and crossovers that achieve an EPA-estimated 30 mpg highway rating or better. What's more, GM said 42 percent of all of vehicles sold were equipped with fuel-sipping four-cylinder engines.
Chevrolet (up 17 percent) carried the load for GM with GMC (up 12 percent) pitching in. Sales of every Chevrolet car rose. Strong performances were delivered by: the new Sonic, which has risen steadily since its August 2011 launch to 8,251 vehicles in March; Cruz sales rose 20 percent to 21,607, its seventh straight month of over 20,000 sales; the Volt had its best month ever with 2,289 sold. At GMC, Terrain sales rose 34 percent, about the same as its Chevrolet cousin, the Equinox.
In negative territory were Buick, down 16 percent, and Cadillac, off 13 percent. The Buick Verano kicked in incremental sales of 2,497 units, too little to offset declines by every other Buick model, including the LaCrosse and Regal equipped with fuel-saving eAssist technology. Cadillac sales missed out on March's industry rise as it awaits the arrival of two new models, the ATS and XTS.
Ford: Ford sold 223,418 vehicles in March, up percent, on target with Edmunds.com's forecast. It was Ford's strongest March since 2007.
As with GM, Ford's strength came from its fuel-efficient models. The Focus had its best March sales with 28,293 sold, a 65-percent increase from a year ago. Clearly, however, Focus sales came at the expense of Fiesta sales which dropped 34 percent to 6,502 units. The midsize Fusion, being sold down to make way for the new version, had its best month ever with 28,562 sold. The Ford Edge had its best March with 14,058 sold. Ford F-Series sales rose 9 percent to 58,061 units, for the trucks best March since 2007. Ford said 41 percent of F0=150 retail sales went out the door with Ford's fuel-saving EcoBoost engine; in total 56 percent of F-150s were sold with V6 engines. In contrast, sales of full-size SUVs Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator dropped.
Lincoln sales edged 4 percent higher, even though MKZ sales were down. Ford is displaying the production version of the new MKZ at this week's New York auto show.
Toyota: Toyota finally got back to selling over 200,000 vehicles in March, barely. Toyota's March sales totaled 203,282 vehicles, up 15 percent from a year ago but below Edmunds.com's expectations. Still, it was Toyota's best March since 2008. High gas prices traditionally draw customers to Toyota's products, and finally, after inventory shortages caused by last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the automaker has vehicles to sell.
Toyota's strength came from the Toyota Division, which posted sales of 183,142 vehicles, up 18 percent from a year ago. The division's sales were fueled by the revised Camry and the expanding Prius family. Camry and Camry Hybrid sales rose 31 percent to 42,567 units for their best-ever March. Prius hybrid sales — which now include the smaller, least expensive Prius C and the larger Prius V — had sales of 28,711 vehicles, a 49-percent rise from a year ago. The freshened Yaris also had an increase, but Corolla sales slipped to a still-hefty 28,289 vehicles. Sales of the RAV4, Highlander, Tacoma and Tundra also rose, while 4Runner and Sienna sales dipped. Scion sales increased as well.
While BMW and Mercedes-Benz had record months for luxury vehicle sales, Lexus sales were off 3 percent, though the new GS appears to be catching on. Most of Lexus' decline came from its utilities.
Chrysler: Chrysler Group continued its above-industry pace to post sales of 163,381 vehicles, a 34-percent increase from a year ago and its best monthly sales in four years. All brands posted gains.
Chrysler brand sales rose 70 percent with sales of the midsize 200 up a whopping 121 percent, the full-size 300 up 169 percent and Town & Country minivan sales up 32 percent to 12,476 vehicles. Dodge sales climbed 18 percent, paced by the midsize Avenger and Caravan minivan. The Dodge Dart goes on sale in this quarter. All five Jeep models posted gains, pushing Jeep sales 36 percent higher. Sales of the Ram rose, led by the Ram pickup truck, which will be replaced by one displayed at the New York auto show this week. Fiat had its best month ever for the 500, launched in March last year, with sales of 3,712.
Nissan: Nissan North America reported its best monthly sales in history. March sales climbed 13 percent to 136,317 vehicles.
The company's sales were fueled by the Nissan Division, and specifically from the Altima, which set a new monthly record of 41,050 vehicles sold, a 27-percent increase from a year ago. Edmunds.com calculated that the Altima beat its highest month ever by 25 percent; it represents 30 percent of Nissan and Infiniti sales combined. Nissan unveils the new Altima in New York; it goes on sale in June. The Rogue also set a new monthly record with sales up 20 percent from a year ago. The Juke had a record month, and the Versa set a new March record, with sales up 41 percent.
Infiniti sales dropped 10 percent to 10,185 vehicles. The new JX luxury crossover went on sale in late March and posted sales of 540 units.
Honda: Honda sales continued to disappoint as they fell 5 percent to 126,999 vehicles, rather than rising as had been predicted. Indeed, Honda had a strong March a year ago as buyers scrambled to purchase before inventory shortages hit following the Japan earthquake and tsunami. In addition, Honda trailed the rest of the major automakers in incentives this March. The bright spot was the new CR-V, which saw sales rise 35 percent from a year ago for an all-time monthly sales record of 30,868 sold. Civic sales were off but still a hefty 28,199 units. The third leg of Honda's stool — the Accord — could not match the new Camry and the deep discounting on the Nissan Altima, which is replaced in June with a new version being unveiled at the New York auto show this week. The Accord is replaced in the fall. Despite the fact that consumers leaned heavily toward fuel-efficient smaller vehicles, subcompact Fit and hybrid Insight and CR-Z were not beneficiaries as they had sales drop.
Acura, in the midst of revamping its line, had sales drop 13 percent to 11,166 vehicles. The core TL model had a hefty sales drop while the TSX had an increase.