March auto sales up despite setbacks

US buyers maintained strong demand last month, giving automakers something to cheer about even as the Japan earthquake disrupted production across the industry. With video updates.

By Kim Peterson Apr 1, 2011 1:21PM
Updated 4:55 p.m. EST

(F) had plenty to celebrate Friday. The automaker sold more vehicles in March than its cross-town rival General Motors (GM) -- a feat it had accomplished only once in the past 13 years.

The major automakers are reporting U.S. sales for March, a tumultuous month for the industry. The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan rocked the global supply chain, giving executives heartburn about production levels. But sales were a pretty picture, as buyers kept up strong demand for new cars. Toyota (TM) was the only major automaker to see a sales drop.

Although overall sales momentum declined somewhat from this year's stellar pace, the numbers for most automakers still looked better than a year ago. Ford rode a 19% increase from a year earlier to sell 212,777 vehicles in March. General Motors said its auto sales rose 9.6%, with 206,621 vehicles sold, compared with 188,546 a year earlier. Ford's sales exceeded GM's for only the second time since 1998.

Post continues after video about GM's March sales:
Fleet sales helped Ford's monthly performance. Ford said 35% of its sales went to rental agencies and other fleet buyers, while only 27% of GM vehicles were fleet sales, The Wall Street Journal reported. Shares of GM closed more than 4% to $32.41 as investors applauded the results. Ford saw its share price rise nearly 2% to $15.16.

Overall light-vehicle sales ran at a seasonally-adjusted rate of 13.1 million units in March, according to industry tracking firm Autodata, up from 11.73 million units in March of last year. That's the same rate forecast by analysts at

Total deliveries of passenger cars and light trucks rose 16.9% in March from a year earlier to 1.25 million, Autodata reported. Total industry sales increased 25.5% from the month before.

Image: Couple shopping for car (© Image100/Jupiterimages)Despite rising gas prices, many automakers said they still saw increases in truck and SUV sales. Ford said the fastest-turning vehicle in its showroom for three straight months now has been the new Explorer.

The March sales are particularly striking when you consider how much incentives declined from a month earlier. In fact, the February-to-March drop in incentive spending was was 8.6% -- the steepest has ever recorded since it started analyzing incentives in 2002.

The automakers really cut back incentives on small cars, figuring that rising gas prices were all the incentive customers needed. And they were right: Subcompact and compact cars likely saw a 26% jump in month-over-month sales, according to analysts.

Toyota had gangbuster sales a year ago as it dangled numerous incentives in the wake of damaging recalls. The carmaker was unable to repeat that performance this year, however, and said sales dropped 5.7% in March as truck and SUV sales slowed.

Toyota said it sold 176,222 vehicles in March, which, although down from a year ago, was 24% higher than its February count. Toyota-branded cars saw a 6.7% slump from a year ago, while its Lexus brand saw a 2.3% increase.

But any gains Toyota made with smaller cars were wiped out by the 23% drop in SUV sales and the 15% drop in light-truck sales. Toyota shares closed essentially unchanged Friday at $80.51.

Chrysler is crowing about having its best U.S. sales since May 2008. It sold 121,730 vehicles last month, a 31% increase from a year earlier. The company's current darling, the Chrysler 200 midsize sedan that was featured in its Super Bowl advertising, saw sales spike 191% from the month before, to 6,750 units.

Honda Motor (HMC)
saw its sixth-straight month of double-digit sales growth with 133,650 vehicles sold. That's nearly a 19% increase from a year earlier. Fuel-efficient cars were the sales leaders, the company said. Honda investors didn't do much with the news, however, and the stock closed down nearly 2% to $36.82.

Nissan reported its best U.S. sales month in history with 121,141 units sold, a 27% increase from a year earlier. Nissan's fiscal year ended March 31, and the month's performance helped the company boost its full-year sales 17.3% from the 2009 fiscal year.

Hyundai said it had record sales of 61,873 vehicles in March, up 32% from a year ago and 42% from February. The Sonata and Elantra lines were the sales leaders, seeing a combined 55% gain from a year ago. Those two lines made up 68% of all Hyundai sales.

And even Kia Motors beat its monthly sales record, with 44,179 vehicles sold -- a 48% increase from a year earlier. For the first time ever, two Kia models -- the Sorento and Soul -- passed the 10,000 milestone in units sold.

Apr 1, 2011 3:41PM

For 20 years, I've driven Chevy, but will NEVER own another GM. They and their dealers, especially Global Auto Mall in North Plainfield, NJ are nightmares at ripping customers off.


When I refused $thousands in out of pocket suggestions from Global, My 2 hr steering system recall took 3 days. Days after the steering was inoperable, but their Service Mgr told me they didn't damage my hoses and they aren't attached to the steering system. Who would think the steering hoses were part of the steering system?  He claimed it was a slow leak over a year despite their technicians missing it when they certified the system fixed during 1st visit. So much for Goodwrench Technicians and Inspections.


GM themselves refused to help since Global wouldn't return calls and I had to have the repairs to dealer's screw up done at a private shop at my cost. Avoid GM and especially Global Auto Mall.

Lost $18,000 in GM bonds when they went bankrupt.

Nobody should ever buy a GM car or hold bonds or stocks in the company because they will just steal your money and sell you a very bad car.
W56, you were close. I added this after seeing your comment: Ford's fleet sales were 35% and GM's were 27%.
Apr 1, 2011 2:30PM
I wonder how much of Fords sales were to Fleet customers since last years sales gains were due to Fleet sales and GM had theirs at the retail level.  I am willing to bet Ford and Crapslers fleet sales are still well over 30% while GM has shrunk theirs below 25% of total sales.   
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