Chrysler and Ford Report Sales Gains in March

Pain at the pump drives consumers to more fuel-efficient models.

Chrysler and Ford kept up the recent momentum in U.S. auto sales in March, reporting solid advances from a year ago as high gasoline prices drove consumers to more fuel-efficient models.

Chrysler Group LLC, controlled by Italy's Fiat SpA (IW 1000: 81), said its vehicle sales in the United States surged 34% to 121,730 units, the highest level since March 2008.

The March numbers marked the 24th consecutive month of year-over-year gains and the 10th month running of increases above 20% for Chrysler.

The March sales surge was driven by the Chrysler brand, up 70% from March 2011.

Sales improved for all five of Chrysler's Jeep brand models, led by a 46% jump in Jeep Liberty sales, while Dodge brand sales rose 18%.

"The combination of credit availability, an improving economy, pent-up demand and even high fuel prices encouraging people to acquire newer more fuel-efficient vehicles are all helping to drive industry sales," said Reid Bigland, president and chief executive of the Dodge Brand and head of U.S. sales, in a statement.

The Fiat brand sales skyrocketed a record 642% on a 12-month basis. The Fiat 500, sporting Italian design and fuel efficiency, was launched in the United States in March last year.

Ford Motor Co. (IW 500: 6) posted a 5% rise in sales over March 2011, with sales of 223,418 vehicles, its strongest sales performance since 2007.

The No. 2 U.S. automaker said the fuel-efficient Focus was its hottest-selling car, with sales up 78% and setting an all-time sales record of 28,562 units.

Ford also pointed to consumers' pain at the pump for the improvement in sales.

"Rising gas prices continued to drive strong customer demand for Ford's fuel-efficient vehicles throughout March and the first quarter," said Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service.

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