By Alisa Priddle and Brent Snavely
Detroit Free Press
---- — U.S. consumers returned to showrooms in full force in March as one of the coldest winters on record for most of the country began to subside, giving automakers confidence that sales are back on track.
Sales of new cars and trucks increased 5.7 percent in March from a year earlier. The annual selling rate was 16.4 million, the strongest pace since last November, and up substantially from 15.2 million in January and 15.3 million in February.
“March sales turned noticeably higher mid-month and finished strong,” said John Felice, Ford vice president for U.S. sales and service. “Traffic got stronger as the month progressed.”
Chrysler posted a 13 percent gain, largely due to its new Jeep Cherokee and Ram 1500 pickup. Ford’s sales edged up 3.3 percent while GM’s sales rose 4 percent.
GM showrooms suffered hardly at all from the expanded recall of more than 2 million small cars from the 2003 through 2010 model years over defective ignition switches.
“This has certainly been a trying month for GM, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at its sales,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for Edmunds.com. “Shoppers still see it as a trusted brand.”
Among Asian automakers, Subaru sales surged 21 percent, Kia’s rose 11.5 percent, Nissan’s were up 8.3 percent, and Toyota’s increased 4.9 percent. Missing out on the upward trend, Honda sales fell 2 percent; Hyundai slipped 1.9 percent, and Volkswagen dipped 3 percent.
Bill Fay, vice president and general manager for Toyota, said its Lexus dealers in the New York region had the best month in its 25-year history.
“The industry began to emerge from one of the harshest winters on record,” Fay said.
U.S. automakers sold more than 1.54 million cars and trucks in March.
Chrysler’s new Jeep Cherokee and Ram 1500 drove the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker’s performance. Jeep sales soared 47 percent and Ram rose 29 percent. That more than offset a 1 percent increase for Dodge and a 23 percent decline for the Chrysler brand.
“We are entering the spring selling season on a high note,” Reid Bigland, Chrysler’s head of U.S. sales.
All Detroit automakers are benefiting from rising pickup sales as residential and commercial construction continues to rebound.
Full-size pickups accounted for almost 12 percent of industry sales in March compared with 11 percent a year ago, Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle said. The small crossover and small car segments dropped while mid-size car sales grew to almost 17 percent, up half a percentage point.
Ford sold 70,940 F-Series pickups in March, up 5 percent from a year earlier.
Chrysler’s Ram pickup (42,532) outsold the Chevrolet Silverado (42,247). But GMC sold 16,863 Sierra pickups.
The average incentive for a Ram 1500 in March was $4,769, or 12.5 percent higher than a year earlier. The average incentive for Chevrolet Silverado, meanwhile, was $4,108 in March, or 31 percent lower than last March.
GM began to reduce its incentives last year on its Silverado and Sierra pickups when it introduced redesigned versions of both the Silverado and Sierra pickups. While it may be giving up some sales, the average transaction prices, therefore the profit, of the pickups have increased by several hundred dollars per unit, Caldwell said.
“Ram has a very different strategy and we’re not going to abandon our pricing and incentive discipline to follow them,” said GM spokesman Jim Cain.