U.S. Auto Sales Maintain Momentum in March

Ford, GM and Chrysler reported year-over-year sales gains, while Volkswagen continued to make inroads with its best March since 1973.

U.S. auto sales kept up the recent positive momentum in March, with automakers posting solid advances as high gasoline prices spur buying of fuel-efficient models.

General Motors Co. (IW 500: 5), the world's biggest automaker by sales, reported March sales of 231,052 vehicles in the United States, up 12% from a year ago.

GM touted sales of a record 100,000 cars and crossovers that achieve at least a highway rating of 30 miles per gallon estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The economic recovery and a deep bench of fuel-efficient cars and crossovers have been driving our sales for more than a year, but the combined impact has never been stronger than it was in March," said Don Johnson, GM vice president, U.S. sales operations, in a news release.

"Since the last time fuel prices spiked, both the economy and GM's product portfolio are undeniably stronger."

GM passenger-car sales rose 22% from a year ago, with small and compact-car sales increasing a combined 62%.

Sales of crossovers -- vehicles built on a car platform that incorporate features of sport-utility vehicles -- leapt 47%, and midsize-car sales were up 38%.

Full-size pickup sales rose 14%, GM said. Only two brands -- Buick and Cadillac -- saw total sales declines in March, but only because of drops in fleet sales.

Ford Motor Co. (IW 500: 6), the No. 2 U.S. automaker, posted a 5% gain in sales, to 223,418 vehicles, its strongest sales performance since 2007.

Ford 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, vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service.

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

"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 Dodge Brand and head of U.S. sales, in a news release.

The March numbers marked the 24th consecutive month of year-over-year gains and the 10th month running of rises above 20% for Chrysler, the No. 3 U.S. automaker said.

The Chrysler brand led sales for the automaker, jumping 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%.

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 2011.

Toyota Bouncing Back

Among foreign automakers, Toyota Motor Corp. (IW 1000: 5) posted a 15% rise in U.S. sales, to 203,282 vehicles, one year after Japan's earthquake and tsunami disaster disrupted production.

Toyota-brand sales climbed nearly 18% from March 2011, but sales at the luxury Lexus division slipped 2.6%.

Volkswagen AG (IW 1000: 10), aiming to become a major player in the U.S. market and topple GM from its global perch, said U.S. sales jumped 35% to 36,588 units in March, its best performance since 1973.

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