By Solarina Ho
TORONTO, March 1 (Reuters) - Canadian auto sales dropped a moderate 3.3 percent in February in a third straight monthly decline, according to industry data released on Friday, as a hardy appetite for Detroit's Big Three brands helped offset a setback for Japanese makers.
Chrysler Canada was the top seller last month, pipping Ford of Canada by a few hundred units, although Ford posted a higher overall sales increase at 5 percent, compared with Chrysler's 2 percent.
Carlos Gomes, an auto sector analyst at Scotiabank, said severe winter weather in part may have been responsible for the overall weakness.
"It's not terribly out of line with what we are forecasting for the year as a whole," he said.
Excluding weak sales of Japanese and Korean vehicles, sales have been up nearly 2 percent this year, Gomes said.
Industry sales totaled 103,226 vehicles in February, down from 106,712 a year ago, according to analyst firm DesRosiers Automotive. The drop comes after January sales fell modestly following a sturdy 5.7 percent sales rise in 2012.
"It still remains relatively robust given the slowing economy and drop in consumer confidence that was seen during the month," independent industry analyst Dennis DesRosier said in a research note.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2013, DesRosier said the spring selling season starting in March will provide a better gauge of the industry's direction for this year.
Chrysler sold the most vehicles in any February since 2000 and extended its streak of year-over-year gains to 39 consecutive months.
Chrysler, whose Ram pickup truck is the second best-selling vehicle in Canada, sold 16,832 vehicles in February, up from 16,536 for the same period a year before. Car sales were up 16 percent from February 2012, while trucks were down 0.6 percent.
Chrysler, majority-owned by Fiat SpA, said the Chrysler 200, Dodge Avenger, Fiat 500 and Dodge Dart helped fuel gains in car sales.
Ford Motor Co of Canada's 5 percent rise in February sales marked its best performance for that month in seven years.
Ford sold 16,301 vehicles in February, up from 15,461 for the same period a year ago. Car sales climbed 13 percent, while truck sales were up a little over 3 percent.
Total sales of General Motors of Canada Ltd fell 1.9 percent compared to a year earlier, but were up 2.2 percent when adjusted for selling days. It sold 13,987 vehicles compared with 14,258 in February of last year.
GM, maker of the Cadillac ATS, said car sales rose 8.8 percent, but truck sales fell 6.5 percent.
In the United States, pent-up demand for new cars and trucks boosted monthly auto sales, with February figures showing automakers beat analysts estimates.
Among the Japanese automakers, Toyota Motor Corp's Canadian sales fell nearly 14 percent, while Honda Motor Co Ltd recorded a 13 percent decrease in Canada, excluding their respective luxury brands, Lexus and Acura.
Nissan Motor Co Ltd sales fell 15 percent compared with February 2012, excluding the Infiniti line, which was up 27 percent.
Korean brands Hyundai and Kia were also down nearly 6 percent and 10 percent, respectively.