March was another strong month for auto sales.
Ford Motor Co. sales jumped 19.2% to 212,777 from the same month a year earlier, pushing the automaker past General Motors Co. to become the top seller in the U.S. auto market in March. Ford was helped by strong sales of its core Ford brand – up more than 28%. Lincoln sales slumped 2.2%.
Ford said its efforts to retool the company to produce more fuel-efficient passenger cars has paid off as gas prices have risen in recent months.
"Consumers are placing a high priority on fuel efficiency in every size and kind of vehicle," said Ken Czubay, Ford's U.S. sales chief.
Sales also rose because "Ford increased incentives spending despite the fact that most other automakers posted a decrease," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com. "However, having strong entries in subcompact, compact and small SUV really helps when gas prices soar."
Although Ford had a good March, it still trailed GM through the first quarter of the year. Ford's sales have risen 15.9% to 496,720 vehicles year-to-date.
For the first quarter of 2011, GM sales rose 24.1% to 592,545 autos. In March, GM's sales rose 9.6% to 206,621 vehicles compared with March 2010. GM slashed its incentives and discounts during the month and that hurt its results. Still, the automaker's newly designed models, such as the compact Chevrolet Cruze sedan, are selling well, especially at the retail level, said Don Johnson, GM's vice president of U.S. sales operations.
GM sold 50,200 Cruze cars during the quarter, a third more than the Cobalt, the vehicle it replaced. Moreover, while GM had to sell nearly 40% of its Cobalts to rental car companies because there were few retail buyers, almost all the Cruze business has been with consumers. Introduced last year, it has rapidly become the company's bestselling passenger car.
Nissan North America Inc. said its March sales rose 26.9% to 121,141, the most it has ever sold in any month in America.
"Nissan enjoyed our best month ever, with the foundation of our fuel-efficient vehicles such as Altima, Sentra and Rogue leading the way," said Al Castignetti, vice president and general manager, Nissan Division.
Chrysler Group reported U.S. sales of 121,730, a 31% percent increase compared with March 2010. It was Chrysler's best March since 2008, and its highest sales for any month since May 2008. The company's passenger car sales increased 46%.
High gas prices have pushed more shoppers into passenger cars.
Compact and subcompact cars — the most fuel efficient vehicles — accounted for nearly 24% of the retail market in March compared with about 20% in February, said Jeff Schuster, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates.
Auto information company TrueCar.com estimated that the average fuel economy of the vehicles sold in March was 22 miles per gallon compared with 21.2 in March 2010.
"We also saw that domestic manufacturers have come a long way, nearly increasing their average by almost two miles per gallon since last year," said Jesse Toprak, a TrueCar analyst.
After selling well for months the large pickup truck is showing the first signs of cooling off, Schuster said.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan also seem to have brought consumers out of the woodwork. Schuster said that consumers are heading for dealers because they have heard about either "real or potential" shortages of certain vehicles and they want to get their choice of car while it is still in stock.
Analysts said the problems in Japan, the high gas prices and the war in Libya have sent the car market into flux.
Moreover, sales incentives and discounts are expected to be less generous in April as the industry reacts to higher consumer demand and expected inventory problems for some of the smaller and fuel efficient vehicles, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.com.
"We are potentially seeing sales pulled forward as shoppers go out and buy the vehicles that are in inventory," Schuster said.
Full industry sales looked close to what they have been running in recent months with most analysts projecting that the industry will sell about 13 million vehicles this year, up from 11.6 million in 2010.