U.S. light-vehicle sales — aided by Chrysler Group, Volkswagen Group, Hyundai-Kia and Toyota Motor Corp. — rose 13 percent last month to 1.4 million units, with demand for smaller, fuel-efficient models, redesigned vehicles and pickups driving the gains.
Even with gasoline prices exceeding $4 a gallon in many parts of the country, the seasonally adjusted sales rate for March hit 14.4 million units. That was up from 13.06 million a year earlier but down from 15.1 million in February.
Overall demand increased 13 percent to 3.5 million units during the first quarter, offering more evidence that the industry’s steady recovery is on track despite mixed economic signals.
“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,” Reid Bigland, head of the Dodge brand and U.S. sales operations for Chrysler, said in a statement.
“There’s definitely a tailwind out there,” Bigland added.
Of the seven largest automakers, only Honda Motor Co. posted a drop in sales last month. The Japanese automaker said Honda division sales dipped 4 percent while Acura deliveries dropped 12 percent.
Based on first quarter sales results, GM, Ford, Toyota and Honda have lost U.S. market share this year, while Chrysler Group, Hyundai-Kia, Volkswagen Group and BMW Group have gained ground. The share held by Daimler AG and Nissan Motor Co. has remained flat.
Chrysler Group’s U.S. sales rose 34 percent, its fifth straight month with an increase at least that high.
At Toyota Motor Corp., sales rose 15 percent to 203,282 units — its biggest gain since February 2011 — as the automaker continued to recover from the earthquake in Japan 12 months earlier.
Toyota Division volume climbed 18 percent, but Lexus posted a 3 percent decline. Sales of the Prius hybrid hit 28,711, edging out the Corolla compact.
At General Motors, sales climbed 12 percent, with advances at Chevrolet and GMC offsetting declines at Buick and Cadillac. Ford Motor Co. said demand was up 5 percent, and sales at Nissan North America jumped 13 percent to 136,317 units.
Volkswagen AG said the VW brand’s U.S. sales advanced 35 percent in March — the seventh consecutive month sales have climbed by that amount or more.
Subaru’s U.S. car and light-truck volume rose 20 percent to 32,387 units. At Mazda, sales increased 5 percent last month and have advanced 27 percent to 82,023 year to date.
Hyundai Motor Co.’s Kia unit set a monthly sales record of 57,505 units, up 30 percent.
American Honda attributed its March sales declines to “exceptionally strong” results in March 2011, when the automaker sold 133,650 units, including both Acura and Honda divisions.
The Honda division’s March sales — 115,833 cars and light trucks — represented its highest monthly volume so far this year despite inventories that have yet to return to 100 percent, according to spokeswoman Alicia Jones.
The rise in gasoline prices did not slow demand for some larger vehicles.
GM’s full-sized pickup sales rose 14 percent.
Chrysler said deliveries at the Jeep brand surged 36 percent, and Ram pickup sales rose 18 percent despite gasoline prices that are climbing towards the record highs of 2008.
At the Chrysler brand, volume soared 70 percent. Sales of the Fiat 500 minicar line reached 3,712 units — the year-old model’s best showing to date.
GM said its car sales increased 22 percent, with small and compact car deliveries up a combined 62 percent.
GM said it tallied a record 100,000 light vehicles that achieve highway fuel economy of 30 mpg or more in March. Demand for the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid hit 2,289 units last month.
The Hyundai brand set a monthly record of 69,728 sales in March and said combined sales of its models that achieve 40 mpg or more on the highway rose 68 percent last month.
At Ford, car sales rose 8 percent, truck demand increased 11 percent and deliveries of utility vehicles advanced 6 percent.
Sales of the compact Focus jumped 65 percent to 28,293, helping soften the blow from a 34 percent drop in Fiesta subcompact deliveries.
Higher inventory levels, new models and favorable lease deals are also helping to drive sales, analysts say.
In addition, mild weather across much of the country and improving consumer sentiment — fueled by rising stock prices and employment gains — provided a lift to industry sales last month.
The rise in gasoline prices is prompting some consumers to trade in gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient cars and light-truck models, automakers say.