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March 2013 Car Sales: Juiced By Low-Interest Loans?

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2014 Subaru Forester

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Spring is finally here, and the jobs picture is brightening--but the biggest factor in rising car sales could be easy money.

March 2013 car sales are being reported today, and for the most part, all the brands sold in the U.S. are posting moderate gains over the same period a year ago. Subaru and BMW are up strongly at 13 percent each, while the domestics are showing single-digit gains. Only the South Korean brands so far are down, with Kia posting the least encouraging numbers of the news cycle.

In all, the seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) in March is expected to reach 15.3 million units, according to a joint survey from J.D. Power and Associates and LMC Automotive. That would be flat against February's numbers, despite the average retail price of a new car going up 3 percent, to $28,504.

The retail sales SAAR of 12.1 million units should remain unchanged as well.

What's at the root of continued healthy sales? J.D. Power and Associates senior vice president of global automotive operations John Humphrey says that the steady upward pressure of price has pushed buyers into longer-term loans, but says shoppers also are leasing more, as well as capitalizing on low interest rates.

Bankrate.com's average for new 48-month auto loans currently sits at 2.44 percent, near historic lows.

"While longer loan terms have traditionally been a cause for concern to the industry due to the risk of purchase cycle extension, it is not necessarily as daunting as it may seem." said Humphrey. "The longer loans are being offset by more leasing and the low interest environment, which means that consumers are able to put more of their monthly payment towards their loan principal rather than interest fees."

The financial climate's led Power partners LMC Automotive to hold its forecast for total 2013 light vehicle sales in the U.S. to 15.3 million units, with the retail sales forecast holding at 12.5 million units.

"We expect the economic environment to improve throughout 2013, as the likelihood of a dark cloud slowing the recovery pace diminishes," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive. "Consumers do not appear phased by headwinds from Washington."

The automakers themselves are upbeat about prospects for the remainder of the year. GM predicts a SAAR of between 15 and 15.5 million units for the year; Chrysler estimates the March SAAR at 15.6 million vehicles, including retail and fleet.

Numbers are still coming in from a handful of makes, but so far, these sales figures have been reported by the automakers:

General Motors: GM [NYSE:GM] says it sold 245,950 vehicles in the U.S. in March, up 6.4 percent from the year before. Cadillac posted a 49.5-percent gain to 15,751 units; Buick sales were up 37.4 percent to 18,007 units; GMC sales rose 11.6 percent to 38,333 vehicles; and Chevy was up 0.5 percent to 173,859 units. Big crossovers were in vogue: Chevy's Traverse was up 54 percent, while the similar GMC Acadia was up 77 percent, and the Buick Enclave, 55 percent. But the Buick Regal was off 38.5%; the Chevy Camaro, down 12.8%; the poorly received Chevy Malibu was off 22.4% and the aging-out Cadillac CTS saw its sales fall 37.8%. In addition, GM could have used some extended range on its electric car numbers: Volt sales were down 35.4%.

Ford: Ford [NYSE: F] says it posted a sales increase of 6 percent, its best month since May 2007. The Ford brand, up 6.9 percent, accounted for 229,335 units out of the 236,160-vehicle total, while Lincoln was off 22.5 percent for the remaining 6,825 units. Cars were flat, trucks were up 6 percent, SUVs rose 14 percent between both Ford brands--but Mustang sales were off 15 percent, and Focus sales were down 11.9 percent, while F-Series pickups pushed 16.3 higher and the 2013 Ford Fusion sedan had sales up 6 percent.

Toyota / Lexus / Scion: Toyota says it sold 205,342 units in March 2013, up 4.8 percent on an adjusted basis. The Toyota division accounted for 182,152 units, up 3.1 percent on an adjusted basis, while Lexus was up 19.4 percent to 23,190 units. Scion sold 6,432 vehicles, off 0.4 percent. Big gainers for Toyota were the Avalon, up 117.6 percent; the Lexus ES, up 124.4 percent; and Tacoma, up 25.6 percent. The Toyota Yaris was down 30 percent; Prius was off 20 percent; Lexus' CT hatch was down 50.5 percent; and the FJ Cruiser fell by 40.2 percent.

Chrysler: Chrysler says its sales of 171,606 units represented a 5-percent increase from the year-ago period. Ram Truck brand sales were up 24 percent, to 34,540 units, while Dodge brand sales were up 15 percent to 59,885 units, and Fiat was up 3 percent to 3,807 units. Jeep fell 13 percent to 39,469 sales, and Chrysler brand was off 2 percent, at 33,905 units sold. Sales of the Chrysler 300, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Dodge Grand Caravan all were off in the double digits, counterbalanced by Ram 1500 and Dodge Durango sales.

Honda / Acura: Honda says it sold 136,038 units in March, up 11.1 percent on an adjusted basis. Honda-brand vehicles represented 121,938 units, an increase of 5.3 percent; Acura sold 14,100 units, up 26.3 percent. 

Nissan / Infiniti: Nissan says its two brands combined for sales of 137,726 vehicles, up 1 percent on the year, for the best month in the company's history. Nissan-brand vehicles claimed 126,623 of the sales, up 0.4 percent, while Infiniti delivered 11,103 vehicles, up 9 percent. The Leaf electric car posted its best sales month yet, as did the Infiniti JX crossover, while the new Nissan Pathfinder logged an impressive 177-percent boost over the former version.
 

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