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U.S. automobile sales rise in March

Record results from Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. led U.S. vehicle sales higher in March, while Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. posted moderate rises that were not strong enough to keep the U.S. automakers from raising incentives.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The top two American automakers and two of Japan’s biggest car manufacturers posted higher U.S. sales for March compared with results last year that were depressed by the start of the war with Iraq.

General Motors Corp., the world’s largest automaker, said Thursday overall sales rose 6.3 percent last month, led in part by strong mid-size car sales and a 16 percent rise in business at Cadillac.

Japan’s No. 1 carmaker, Toyota Motor Corp., ended its best-ever first quarter in the United States with its best-ever March, as sales rose 5.5 percent. Toyota sold 464,721 vehicles in the United States in the first three months of the year — about 52,000 fewer than DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group, the No. 3 U.S. manufacturer.

Toyota has done business in the United States for 47 years.

“Despite skyrocketing fuel prices, industry sales, especially in the light truck segment, remain strong,” said Jim Press, executive vice president of Toyota’s U.S. division.

Pickup trucks again drove sales at Ford Motor Co., as its overall business rose 2.2 percent last month. Pickups also scored big for Chrysler, as the Dodge Ram had an all-time sales record for March.

Companywide, Chrysler’s business was off 2 percent in March versus the year-ago period, but the automaker still managed to notch its second consecutive quarter of positive sales growth.

At the same time, Nissan Motor Co.’s North American division had its best sales month ever, reporting business up 30.3 percent from last year. Nissan has launched a new full-size pickup and sport utility vehicle in recent months.

Through March, Nissan’s U.S. sales, including its luxury Infiniti division, were up 33.2 percent compared with the first three months of 2003.

March marked Ford’s first positive sales month since November. The automaker said truck sales, led by its industry-leading F-Series models, rose 8.7 percent, while sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brand cars fell by roughly the same percentage.

Last month also marked the seventh consecutive month that F-Series trucks achieved a double-digit sales increase — a streak that coincides with the introduction of the new F-150 last year.

“March was a solid month, and tax refunds should help keep spring sales brisk,” said Jim O’Connor, Ford’s group vice president for North American marketing, sales and service.

Some analysts predicted sluggish sales for March, following the trend from January and February, but results were generally stronger than expected. Tax refunds and hefty consumer incentives were predicted to provide a bit of a boost to business.

March is considered an important month in the industry because it marks the start of the spring selling season.

At GM, five brands — Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Pontiac and Buick — reported double-digit sales increases in March versus a year ago. Truck sales for the first quarter were up 7.5 percent.

“We expect further growth (in truck business) this year with the addition of new products like the Chevrolet Colorado and Equinox, Cadillac SRX and GMC Envoy XUV and Canyon,” said John Smith, GM’s group vice president for sales, service and marketing in North America.

GM also announced Thursday it was adding consumer incentives on most 2004 trucks through June 1. The new offer includes $1,000 in cash and interest-free financing for five years.