March auto sales up 13 percent, recovery quickens

Tue Apr 3, 2012 5:17pm EDT
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By Bernie Woodall and David Bailey

(Reuters) - Auto sales rose about 13 percent in March as consumers energized by an improving job market replaced aging vehicles and took advantage of cheap financing.

The strong March sales rounded out the best quarter for U.S. vehicle sales since 2008 and raised the prospect that major automakers would have to scramble to boost production and lift cautious full-year sales forecasts.

The auto industry has been in a slow, sporadic recovery for the past two years, and the March data suggested the pace of the recovery is gathering steam.

One analyst said March was a "litmus test" for the year after a strong January and an even stronger February.

"The fact that the (sales rate) is strong shows real strength on the retail side," said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at "Moving forward, if we can continue to see these signs of pent-up demand, I think that will bode well for 2012 and beyond."

Chrysler Group LLC posted a 34 percent U.S. sales increase over the previous March, while sales at General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co rose by 12 percent and 5 percent, respectively. Toyota Motor Corp had a 15 percent gain and Volkswagen AG's sales were up by 35 percent.

Honda Motor Co experienced a sales slide of 5 percent, which the Japanese automaker pegged to exceptionally strong U.S. sales the previous March.

Industry experts said sales of cars and trucks last month were lifted by the same factors that have driven the industry's recovery since mid-2011: the need for consumers to replace aging clunkers as gasoline prices rise, and improved consumer confidence in the wake of a stabilizing job market.   Continued...

A row of Ford Focus (bottom) are displayed next to Ford F-Series pickups at Koons Ford in Silver Spring, Maryland April 3, 2012. U.S. auto sales rose more than 15 percent in March, preliminary data showed, as rising consumer confidence and cheap financing quickened the pace of a sluggish recovery more than two years in the making. REUTERS/Gary Cameron