(Reuters) - Canadian auto sales rose for a third consecutive month in March, and Ford regained its crown as the No. 1 seller, but the pace of sales slowed as demand returned to what Ford Canada's chief executive said was a "more realistic" level.
Industry sales rose 2.8 percent in March to 157,750 cars and trucks, according to statistics compiled by independent automotive consultants, DesRosiers.
Continued demand for smaller, fuel-efficient cars drove the increase, which was considerably smaller than the sales gains in Canada in the first two months of the year.
January's 15.4 percent jump in sales followed by February's 11.2 percent rise "surprised us a bit", said Ford Canada CEO Dianne Craig.
"We are probably returning to more realistic levels for this year," she said in an interview at the Vancouver Auto Show.
With Canadian economic growth still sluggish, industry observers had not expected red-hot sales this year.
Fuel economy remains "top of mind", Craig said. Passenger car sales rose to 73,645 last month, up 6.5 percent from March 2011. Sales of less fuel-efficient light trucks dipped 0.3 percent to 84,105.
South of the border no slowdown was evident. 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 an auto-sales recovery more than two years in the making.
In Canada, Ford, which had lost its longstanding position as the top seller to fellow Detroit automaker Chrysler in the first two months of the year, regained the title even as its sales dipped 3.3 percent to 24,690 in March from March 2011.
Craig blamed the dip on a tough comparison with last March, when sales at Ford, whose line-up includes the popular Ford Focus compact and F-Series trucks, hit a 12-year record.
Although overtaken by Ford in March, Chrysler said it sold more vehicles in Canada in the first quarter of 2012 than any of its competitors with demand especially strong for its line-up of passenger cars.
Sales at Chrysler, which makes Ram pick-up trucks as well as Jeep, Dodge and Fiat models, rose 8 percent in March to 22,703, the company said. Chrysler said its sales were up 12 percent at 55,823 in the first quarter from the first three months of 2011.
Chrysler was No. 3 in sales in Canada last year behind Ford Canada and General Motors.
Sales of Chrysler trucks, up 1.6 percent at 18,361 last month, still dwarfed sales passenger cars at 4,342. But car sales were up 50 percent from March 2011.
General Motors, which makes Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac brands, took third spot in Canada as its sales fell 7.4 percent to 22,684.
Toyota Canada sales were a touch weaker at 16,054. Hybrids accounted for 10.5 percent of all Toyota and Lexus vehicles sold in March, the company said.
"Canadians look for fuel efficiency and value in a vehicle..," said Tony Wearing, senior managing director of Toyota Canada Inc.
Reporting By Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Peter Galloway