Despite General Motors' recent recall of millions of its cars — and several investigations into the issue — buyers are still streaming into GM dealerships.
The beleaguered automaker announced Tuesday that sales in March rose 4% compared with the same month a year earlier. Nearly the entire industry saw a similar jump in the U.S., with sales up 5.7% to 1.54 million vehicles, according to Autodata.
Pent-up consumer demand and healthy sales incentives helped companies rebound from a slow February, when bad weather throughout much of the country kept buyers away, according to Mark Wakefield, managing director at AlixPartners and head of its automotive practice in North America.
"And the industry seems well-positioned heading into spring: low interest rates, improving credit availability, dealers with full lots, manufacturers getting more aggressive with incentives and, surprisingly, strong used-car prices," Wakefield said.
Strong consumer confidence and an economy that continues to recover also pushed sales up.
"Now that the sun is starting to shine more, we're seeing more record sales and movement in a few key segments," said Akshay Anand, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
Crossover SUVs and pickup trucks were among the biggest winners in March. This includes the Ford F-150 and Ram 1500 trucks, Dodge Durango SUV, Nissan Cube and Rogue crossovers, and a trio of Jeep models — the Wrangler, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee, Anand said.
The biggest winner among the automakers was Chrysler Group, which had its best March since 2007. The automaker sold 193,915 vehicles last month, a 13% gain over March 2013.
GM clocked in as the biggest U.S. automaker in March, in the face of growing controversy over a recent spate of recalls. It sold 256,047 vehicles, despite recalling more than 2.6 million vehicles for faulty ignition switches that have been linked to at least 13 deaths.
GM's gains outpaced rival Ford. With 243,417 vehicles sold in March, Ford's sales were up 3.3% from the same month in 2013.
On the import side, Nissan Group said its March sales rose 8.3% to 149,136 vehicles, the best monthly total in the company's history. Subaru sales surged 21.2% to 44,479 vehicles sold; Kia saw an 11.5% increase to 54,777 sales; and Mazda's 34,903 sales were a 9% gain from March 2013.
Toyota Motor Corp. said its U.S. sales rose 4.9% to 215,348 vehicles, compared with the same month a year earlier.
"Solid March sales pushed first-quarter industry results ahead of last year's pace despite one of the harshest winters on record," said Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota's U.S. sales division. "Toyota dealers had their two best sales weekends of the year late in the month, and we're optimistic that momentum will spring us into April."
American Honda Motor Co. was one of the few automakers to have a slow March, with total sales for its Honda and Acura divisions down 2% from March 2013. Hyundai also saw sales slow down, posting a 1.9% decrease from a year earlier.
VW Group sales were essentially flat at 51,302 vehicles sold. BMW was up 8.1% at 35,839 vehicles sold, and Mercedes-Benz's 30,091 sales were an 11% increase over March 2013.
The bump in auto sales is expected to continue in the coming months, for many of the same reasons that made March a strong month. Easy credit, confident buyers and a competitive marketplace will all continue to drive growth, said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
"These factors, combined with the welcome spring thaw in the Midwest and Northeast, have people flocking to dealerships and leaving with a new car," Brauer said.