Detroit Makes Good: March Auto Sales Soar To Record Levels

April 3, 2012
2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8

2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8

If auto sales—now at their highest level in four years—are any indication, Americans are feeling a lot more confident.

GM, Ford, and Chrysler all reported strong sales in March—significantly above year-ago levels—but it was the Chrysler Group that saw sales a full 34 percent, and its best month in four years. Across the board, retail sales were up more than fleet sales—also a sign of strong economic times.

Nissan, Kia, and Mercedes-Benz were all among brands reporting all-time record sales, while Volkswagen reported its strongest first quarter since 1973—the days of the original Beetle.

Honda was the only major U.S.-market brand to report sales down in March, versus a year ago.

Automakers credited the strengthening economy, as well as better credit terms, for some of the gains. Deferred purchases, as more Americans returned to work, were part of it, too; and some analysts even credited the unseasonably warm weather that much of the nation experienced last month as having a role.

As our companion site Green Car Reports found, plug-in sales also soared this past month as well—to more than 3,800 units, and more than any month since December 2010, when both the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf first went on sale.

Gas prices, which now top four dollars on the West Coast, around Chicago, and in some other regions, definitely had something to do with the strong month, too; as did stronger incentives on trucks. Ford sales had already been strong last year, but the automaker managed another five percent above last March, buoyed by those strong truck sales. And while pickups were also strong at rival GM, the automaker did report that it sold 100,000 cars in March that achieve an EPA-rated 30 mpg highway or better.

The pricing authority noted that transaction prices were actually up in March, while incentives were down—all positives for the strength of the auto industry. TrueCar anticipated an average incentive spending per unit of $2,440 in March, down 1.5 percent from last month and 1.7 percent from March 2011.

2012 Nissan Altima

2012 Nissan Altima

Oddly, the strong month was even enough to give some models nearing replacement a second wind. The 2012 Fusion had its strongest sales month ever; so did the Altima; and the slow-selling Mazda6 sedan was even nearly double its sales level last year.

The strong showing prompted some analysts to adjust their sales predictions upward for the entire year—and 2012 will likely shape up to have the highest auto sales since pre-recession 2007 (16.3 million).

Will such strong sales continue into the spring, or are shoppers who would have bought vehicles later in the year simply springing for those more fuel-efficient vehicle sooner because of the rising gas prices? And what of the weaker performance, and lack of consistency, we see in some of the numbers for the luxury market?

We'll just have to see next month. In the meantime, click to the next page to see the brand-by-brand specifics.

2012 Chevrolet Volt

2012 Chevrolet Volt

The totals for March 2012, as reported by the automakers:

General Motors: Total GM (NYSE: GM) sales for March were up 12 percent year-over-year, to 231,052 vehicles, with each of GM's brands except for Cadillac up compared to last March. Sales of small and compact cars were up the most (62 percent) versus last March, thanks to the new Sonic subcompact (8,251 sales) and Cruze compact (21,607). GM also sold 2,289 Volt models—50 percent higher than December. The Chevrolet Equinox was also a strong seller, as was the Cadillac CTS, and the 2012 Buick Verano found nearly 2,500 sales. GM reported bulging inventories, however, with a 124-day supply of full-size pickups and an 86-day supply of all vehicles combined.

Ford: Sales for Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) were at their strongest in five years—and were up five percent versus last March—to 223,418. The Ford F-Series trucks were at 58,061, up 9 percent and at their strongest March sales rate since 2007, with EcoBoost models now accounting for 41 percent of retail F-150 sales. And several models—the Fusion, Focus, and Edge—had their strongest March sales ever.

Toyota / Lexus / Scion: Toyota had its best March since 2008—and its best month, at 203,282 vehicles—up 11.2 percent from March 2011. 183,142 of those sales were for Toyota-brand models—up 13.5 percent from last March—while Lexus was down 6.1 percent, to 20,140 units. Scion was up 16.5 percent in March, to 6,694 units, with the tC coupe comprising 2,275 of those. Among Toyota-brand vehicles, Camry sales surged to 42,567 (30.5 percent versus last March), while the Prius was up 49 percent (28,711 units—and now including the Prius V) and the Corolla was at 28,289. Toyota and Tundra sales also saw double-digit increases.

Chrysler: Chrysler posted its strongest sales month since March 2008, as well as its best first quarter since 2008—to a total of 163,381 units, which is 34 percent higher than last March. On top of that, it was the automaker's 24th consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains, and its tenth consecutive month of at least 20-percent sales gains. As well, all of Chrysler's brands—including Jeep, Dodge, Ram Truck, and Fiat—were up in sales individually from February into March. Of the lineup, particularly strong performers included the Chrysler 200 and 300 sedans, the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee (best March in six years).

Honda / Acura: American Honda (Acura and Honda combined) sales for March were at 126,999, down 8.4 percent versus March 2011, with Honda sales at 115,833 (down 7.7 percent). The company attributed. Honda sales were down significantly versus last year for many models, including Fit, Accord, Insight, and CR-Z. Civic Hybrid sales were more than double last year's levels, while sales for the entire Civic line were down nearly 13 percent. Sales were also down for all Acura models except TSX. Year-to-date the Honda brand fares a bit better, though; it's up 1.9 percent versus Q1 last year.

Nissan / Infiniti: Nissan sales surged to 136,317 units, up 12.5 percent from March 2011; and the Nissan brand set a sales record of 126,132 units (up 14.8 percent). Top sales performers included the Altima, setting a new monthly record of 41,050 (up 27.1 percent) even though the model is soon due to be replaced, and the Rogue, at 16,972 (up 19.7 percent). The Juke also rose to a record 4,165 sales. Infiniti was down 9.8 percent from last March, to 10,185 units.

Hyundai: Hyundai set an all-time sales record in March, up 13 percent, to 69,728 units in March, versus last year.

Kia: With an all-time monthly sales record of 57,505, Kia boasted a 30.5-percent increase over March 2011—and its 19th consecutive monthly sales record. The brand also reported that for the first time in its history it has three different models (Optima, Sorento, and Soul) all selling over the 10,000 level.

Volkswagen: Sales for the Volkswagen brand were 34 percent higher this March, versus March 2011. Passat sales were strong, at 10,032 sold in March, and TDI diesel models were up 44 percent versus last year and now account for more than 23 percent of sales. VW also reported that this was its best first quarter since 1973, and the 31st consecutive month with sales increases.

Mazda: Mazda also reported its strongest March since 2008, selling 32,376 vehicles, a 4.8-percent rise versus last March. The 2012 Mazda3 accounted for 13,235 of those sales—up 6.2 percent from March 2011—while the Mazda6 (soon due to be replaced) proved a late performer with its strongest sales month since March 2007 (up 90 percent, to 7,855). Year-to-date, Mazda sales are up 27.1 compared to 2011.

Mercedes-Benz: The German luxury brand reported its strongest first-quarter sales ever in the U.S.—61,513 units, which is up 15.3 percent over Q1 2011. Together, Mercedes-Benz passenger cars plus smart and Sprinter sold 25,508, up 13.1 percent, while Mercedes-Benz cars were up 7.7 percent versus last March, at 23,134. The company said that sales were led by the C Class, E Class, and M Class models, while diesel sales were up nearly 56 percent versus last year.

BMW / MINI: BMW Group sales were up 13 percent in March (versus last year), to 29,806 vehicles; and year-to-date, the Group has achieved its best first quarter since 2007—buoyed by MINI's best first quarter ever, up 14.9 percent just from last year.

Subaru: March was Subaru's fourth consecutive month of record sales, at 32,387—20.3 percent higher than last March—and it capped the brand's best first quarter in the company's history. Year-to-date sales remained more than 19 percent higher than at this point last year. While Forester sales were down somewhat, Impreza sales were up a whopping 214 percent from last March—due to the strong reception of a redesigned 2012 Impreza with higher gas mileage.

Audi: March was Audi's 15th consecutive record-setting sales month, at 11,585 vehicles sold; that was up about 18 percent versus last March. Year-to-date sales were up 16.1 percent compared to the same period in 2011, capping Audi's third quarter of record sales growth.

Mitsubishi: The Mitsubishi Outlander Sport crossover has 1,632 sales—stronger than last March—while the Lancer Evolution was up 46.4 percent versus last March. But overall, the brand posted just 7,160 sales in March—5.3 percent below March 2011.

Volvo: Volvo reported 6,693 U.S. sales in March, up 5.1 percent from the same month last year. Year-to-date, the brand remains up 6.3 percent from 2011.

Jaguar/Land Rover: Jaguar sales for March were up 51 percent from March 2011, to 1,321, while Land Rover sales rose 22 percent, to 4,199. And through the first quarter of the year, sales for both of the brands combined are up 29 percent. Jaguar's sales are driven most by the 2012 XK lineup, as well as the XKR and XKR-S, while the Range Rover Evoque, an all-new model that wasn't on sale last year, sold 785 units in March. The Range Rover Sport was the brand's strongest seller, at 1,356 units for the month.

Porsche: The luxury-performance brand was in the midst of launching two new car lines (911 and Boxster), so its sales were down in March—by about five percent, to 2,460. But the Cayenne was an especially strong seller, up 20 percent to 1,255.

Suzuki: Suzuki sales rose five percent versus last March, to 2,631; and they remain up 30 percent (at 6,561) calendar-year-to-date.

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