Detroit Makes Good: March Auto Sales Soar To Record Levels

April 3, 2012
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

Enlarge Photo
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.

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