(Adds GM, Honda sales)
By Bernie Woodall and Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT/SAN FRANCISCO, April 1 The top five
automakers in the United States on Tuesday reported higher March
sales, beating forecasts and raising expectations April could
show an even stronger sales rebound after a long winter.
Sales rose 5.7 percent in March to an annualized selling
rate of 16.4 million vehicles, well beyond the expectations of
40 analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. They on average expected
a 2 percent increase for an annualized selling rate of 15.8
Cold weather and snow kept many consumers away from dealer
show-rooms in early March. But the second half of the month
showed promise that April will be a strong sales month, said
sales executives from Ford and Toyota.
Ford Vice President of U.S. Sales John Felice said the sales
momentum in late March shows "the trend positive heading into
Bill Fay, general manager for Toyota brand U.S. sales, said,
"We're optimistic that momentum will spring us in into April."
General Motors Co U.S. sales rose 4 percent, Ford
Motor Co reported a 3 percent rise in U.S. sales, Toyota
Motor Corp a 5 percent rise and Chrysler Group, a unit
of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a 13 percent increase
from a year ago.
All beat expectations by industry research firm Edmunds.com.
No. 5 in the U.S. market for March, Nissan Motor Co
, also came in ahead of estimates, selling 149,136
vehicles in the month, up 8 percent.
GM's 4 percent sales gain beat estimates of a 0.5 percent
rise. But most of the attention on GM on Tuesday was focused on
Chief Executive Mary Barra's appearance at a congressional
hearing on the company's slow response to defective ignition
switches, blamed for at least 13 deaths.
Alec Gutierrez, analyst with industry research firm Kelley
Blue Book, said it was too early to tell if GM's recall crisis
has hurt its sales, but said that it is possible that buyers may
stray to other automakers soon.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see some conquest activity maybe
in April or May," said Gutierrez.
GM shares closed down 0.2 percent at $34.34, after trading
higher earlier in the day. Ford shares added 4.6 percent to
$16.32. The wider S&P 500 index was up 0.7 percent.
BOOST FROM INCENTIVES
Auto sales are an early indicator of U.S. consumer demand
for big-ticket items that comes right at the start of a new
month, before government reports on retail sales and durable
goods. The economy sagged in the first two months of year, as
did auto sales, amid massive snowstorms over much of the United
States. But there were signs of a pickup since then.
The boost in sales may be linked to higher incentives by
automakers in March, said Larry Dominique, executive vice
president at industry researcher TrueCar. He said incentives
rose 8 percent to an average $2,800 per new vehicle sale.
Automakers and dealers offer incentives, ranging from
discounts to low interest rates, to entice consumers to buy.
Honda Motor Co showed a decline in U.S. March sales
of 2 percent, to 133,318 vehicles. Although Honda's sales fell,
many analysts had forecast a deeper drop, including Edmunds,
which saw a 10 percent decrease.
GM's full-size pickups Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra
saw sales of 53,378, up 11 percent. Its Buick brand sales rose
13 percent and its Cadillac brand fell 6 percent.
Ford said its F-Series pickup truck sales rose 5 percent to
about 71,000 in March and its Fusion sedan sales rose 9 percent
to nearly 33,000. Ford's luxury brand, Lincoln, increased sales
31 percent, led by a 72 percent sales jump for its best-selling
vehicle, the MKZ sedan.
Toyota's top-selling sedan, the Camry, increased sales 11
percent to 41,953 in the month, and Toyota's eight crossovers
and SUVs increased sales 19 percent. Sales of Toyota's smaller
cars fell, including a drop of 16 percent for its hybrid Prius,
5.5 percent for Corolla and 24 percent for the Yaris subcompact.
Chrysler relied on hefty sales of its Ram trucks and Jeep
Cherokee SUV, which both showed 26 percent sales jumps from a
Hyundai Motor Co U.S. sales fell 2 percent in
March to 67,005 vehicles. Its sister company Kia Motors Corp
increased U.S. sales 11.5 percent to 54,777
BMW said its March sales rose 8 percent to 35,762
vehicles, despite a drop of 40 percent for its MINI brand. The
BMW brand had a 19 percent sales rise to 32,107 vehicles.
Subaru, a division of Fuji Heavy Industries, said
its March sales rose 21 percent to 36,701, led by a 53 percent
rise for its best-selling vehicle in the U.S. market, the
Forester crossover vehicle.
Volkswagen AG's U.S. auto sales fell 3 percent
to 36,717 vehicles in March. Sales of its best-selling cars, the
Jetta and the Passat, rose 5 percent and 16 percent,
Mazda Motor Corp March sales rose 9 percent to
34,903 vehicles, the company's best March U.S. sales since 2007.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp had its best sales month
since August 2008 as U.S. sales rose 70 percent to 8,996
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Nick
Zieminski and Dan Grebler)