U.S. sales of cars and light trucks rose 13 percent in March, sending the industry to the best quarterly pace since 2008, as buyers who put off purchases returned to dealerships to find more fuel-efficient models.
Deliveries accelerated to a 14.4 million seasonally adjusted annual rate from 13.1 million a year earlier, according to researcher Autodata Corp. General Motors Co. (GM:US) and Honda Motor Co. missed analysts’ estimates, leading the industry to fall short of the 14.5 million rate that was the average of 16 estimates in a Bloomberg survey.
Automakers and analysts are increasing their projections for full-year industry sales, citing pent-up demand from consumers who delayed purchases during the recession. Buyers found greater selection of cars, as well as sport-utility vehicles and pickups that get better fuel economy. That boosted demand as gasoline prices rose 20 percent since the end of 2011.
“The recovery in the industry that we’ve been experiencing has some legs,” Jesse Toprak, analyst with TrueCar.com in Santa Monica, California, said in a phone interview. “We’re going to have ups and downs throughout the year, but the trajectory of growth is healthy. The first quarter easily exceeded everybody’s expectations.”
Better-than-estimated sales for Chrysler Group LLC, Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) and Nissan Motor Co. in March helped the average U.S. sales rate in the first quarter accelerate to 14.6 million, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata. That’s the best pace since the industry averaged a 15.5 million rate in the first quarter of 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Analysts at Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank AG, Citigroup Inc. and TrueCar.com last month increased their projections for full-year sales. Researchers at the four companies increased 2012 estimates by an average of 550,000 vehicles to 14.5 million.
IHS Automotive said today it estimates 14.2 million light- vehicle deliveries in the U.S. this year, up from a previous estimate of 14 million.
“It may not be as strong as we’d like it, but there is momentum in the U.S. economy,” Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for IHS, said today at an auto forum in New York.
Chrysler, controlled by Fiat SpA (F), said its U.S. sales climbed 34 percent, beating 10 analysts’ average estimate for a 31 percent increase. Toyota reported a 15 percent gain and Nissan deliveries rose 13 percent. Toyota matched and Nissan exceeded the average estimate of seven analysts, which called for an 11 percent increase.
GM, the top U.S. automaker by sales, said its premium brands lost ground in March, limiting its total increase to 12 percent. That missed 10 analysts’ average estimate for a 19 percent gain. Deliveries for Detroit-based GM’s Buick brand fell 16 percent and Cadillac fell 13 percent.
“GM’s got problems in Cadillac, which they have a solution to with the ATS and XTS coming later this year, and Buick’s a work in progress,” Alan Baum, principal of Baum & Associates, a provider of auto-industry analysis in West Bloomfield, Michigan, said in a phone interview.
Ford, the No. 2 automaker by U.S. sales, said deliveries rose 5 percent, missing 10 analysts’ average estimate for a 5.5 percent gain. The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker’s car sales were mixed, with deliveries of the Focus compact rising 65 percent to 28,293 and Fiesta subcompact deliveries falling 34 percent to 6,502. Sales of the company’s F-Series pickups increased 9 percent to 58,061.
GM fell 4.6 percent to $25.54 at the close of trading in New York. Ford rose 0.2 percent to $12.64.
GM in March delivered 8,251 Chevrolet Sonic subcompacts, which get as much as 33 miles (53 kilometers) per gallon in combined city and highway driving. The company said it sold more than 100,000 vehicles, including the Sonic, that get 30 mpg or more in highway driving.
Galpin Ford, a dealership in North Hills, California, saw strong demand for cars like Focus and sport-utility vehicles such as Edge and Explorer, owner Bert Boeckmann said.
“People didn’t buy for a number of years, so you still have some remaining pent-up demand,” Boeckmann said yesterday in a phone interview. “You have a more positive attitude from people about buying cars right now, and you have people who are justifying it on the basis of improving their mileage.”
Nissan Passes Honda
Honda fell behind Nissan to drop to No. 6 in U.S. sales through the first quarter of the year after deliveries in March declined 5 percent. Sales missed seven analysts’ average estimate for a 5.3 percent increase as the Tokyo-based automaker reported declines for its top-selling cars, Civic and Accord.
Nissan’s Altima was the second-best selling car in March with deliveries of 41,050, up 27 percent.
Automakers have added 11 small cars to the U.S. market since 2007, according to LMC Automotive, including the Fiat 500. That model achieved record monthly sales of 3,712 in March, according to Auburn Hills, Michigan-based Chrysler.
Deliveries of the performance version 500 Abarth begin in the first half of April, Timothy Kuniskis, head of the Fiat brand for North America, said in a phone interview.
“To still not have sold an Abarth yet, I think we’re in a good position to say things have turned the corner, momentum is building and we’re having sustainable growth,” Kuniskis said in a phone interview.
Toyota began U.S. deliveries of its 50 mpg Prius c hybrid subcompact last month. The Prius “family” of four models, including the original hatchback, climbed to 28,711 units in March, a record for the model line, according to the Toyota City, Japan-based automaker.
Toyota sees full-year sales for the industry of more than 14 million, up from a previous forecast of 13.6 million, said Jeff Bracken, vice president of U.S. sales.
Volkswagen AG (VOW3)’s combined sales of its namesake and Audi brands increased by 30 percent to 48,173, according to separate company statements. The gain missed three analysts’ average estimate for a 35 percent rise.
Affiliates Hyundai Motor Co. (005380) and Kia Motors Corp. (000270) combined to sell 20 percent more vehicles than a year earlier, beating the average of five analysts’ estimates for an 18 percent gain.
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