US auto sales expected to rise 2 percent in March

By Dee-ann Durbin

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 1 2014 7:01 a.m. MDT

In this March 27, 2014 picture, a Mercedes-Benz vehicle sits inside a car-carrier before being hauled away for distribution from the company's Vehicle Processing Center in Baltimore. After sales slumped in January and February because of the brutal weather, automakers hope a rebound in March get them back on track to sell more than 16 million cars in the U.S. this year.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

DETROIT — Chrysler's U.S. sales jumped 13 percent in March, helped by strong demand for the new Jeep Cherokee and the Ram pickup.

But few other automakers were expected to report double-digit gains for March, which capped a lackluster first quarter for the industry. Analysts estimate that U.S. auto sales rose around 2 percent over last March, to a total of 1.5 million new cars and trucks.

More automakers will report March sales later Tuesday.

Jesse Toprak, the chief analyst for the car buying site Cars.com, predicted sales in the January-March period will be flat compared with the same period a year ago. As a result, he lowered his full-year U.S. sales forecast to 16.1 million vehicles from 16.5 million. The industry sold 15.6 million cars and trucks in 2013.

Toprak said the fundamentals that helped the industry rebound from the recession remain the same. Low interest rates, declining unemployment and attractive new vehicles will continue to bring buyers into showrooms — just not at the pace of the last few years. Since 2010, U.S. sales have grown an average of 10 percent each year, but they're now reaching a natural peak.

"We are certainly transitioning from a market that was in hyper-recovery mode to a mature market where double-digit gains will be increasingly difficult to attain," Toprak said.

LMC Automotive, a data firm, also lowered its annual sales forecast, to 16.1 million vehicles from 16.2 million.

Others said improving weather and increases in incentives should boost sales as spring progresses. Weaker-than-expected sales in January and February caused cars to pile up on dealer lots, and automakers will likely offer more deals to get them sold.

"The momentum built in March should set the market up for a big month in April," said Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

Chrysler said Jeep brand sales rose 47 percent, largely due to the Cherokee, which went on sale last fall. Sales of its bigger sibling, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, were up 26 percent. And Chrysler's best-seller, the Ram truck, rose 26 percent to 42,532.

Chrysler's minivan sales were also up. Minivan sales usually rise in the spring, as families plan for summer road trips. Dodge Caravan sales jumped 27 percent to 14,165.

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