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U.S. Automoblile Sales Rise; GM and Ford Miss Forecasts

March was a good month for vehicle sales in the U.S., according to numbers released today by automotive manufacturers.

Chrysler and Nissan (PINK:NSANY) posted double-digit increases for the month, beating expectations, while General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Ford (NYSE:F) posted gains — though below analysts’ forecasts, according to Bloomberg News. Hyundai and Toyota (NYSE:TM) also posted gains, while Honda (NYSE:HMC) sounded a sour note, with sales slipping during the month, the Los Angeles Times said.

Bloomberg’s survey of 16 automotive industry analysts showed light-vehicle sales for March at an annualized rate of 14.5 million vehicles, putting 2012 on a solid path to surpass the annualized 13.1 million vehicles sales posted at this time last year, but a little off from February’s 15.1 million pace. The March numbers cap the quickest vehicle sale pace since 2007.

The analysts attributed the strong first-quarter growth in sales to a combination of factors, including the improving job market and pent-up consumer demand for new cars.

General Motors announced a 12% jump year-over-year in March sales of 231,052 vehicles. Ford reported that its deliveries to dealers increased just 5% compared to this time last year. Analysts had predicted 19% and 5.5% monthly sales increases for the companies, respectively, Bloomberg said.

Chrysler, now owned by Fiat (PINK:FIATY), showed better-than-expected 34% increase over last year, rising to 163,381 vehicles sold during the month. Nissan posted a 12.5% increase over last year, selling 136,317 cars during March, a monthly record for the company, the Detroit Free Press noted. According to Bloomberg, 10 analysts surveyed had predicted Chrysler sales to increase by 31%, while an average of seven had forecast an 11% increase for Nissan.

The improving economy has prompted analysts to revise forecasts of 2012 car sales, Bloomberg said, noting that Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup and had boosted their 2012 estimates to an average of 14.5 million vehicles.

“As unemployment comes down and consumer confidence goes up, we see the consumer going out and buying that new vehicle that they put off buying for a number of years,” Joseph Spak, an analyst for RBC Capital Markets commented on Bloomberg Television’s Street Smart program.

Ford indicated that deliveries of its Focus compact soared 65%, hitting 28,293 for March, while sales of its F- Series pickups rose 9%. Chrysler reported a doubling of sales in its 200 and 300 sedan lines, while sales of Jeep Liberty, Wrangler and Grand Cherokee sport-utility vehicles jumped sharply. Even RAM pickup deliveries shot up 23% compared to last year. Chrysler also noted that it sold 3,712 of the new Fiat 500 models.

The Detroit Free Press reported that Volkswagen (PINK:VLKAY) sales increased 34.6% over last March, to 94,400 vehicles sold, marking the carmaker’s highest first-quarter U.S. sales since 1973.

Korean carmaker Hyundai posted record sales of 69,728 vehicles in March, up 13% over 2011, the Los Angles Times reported. Sales were so strong that the company’s inventory of Elantra and Sonata sedans, manufactured in Montgomery, Ala., have been all but depleted. John Krafcik, chief executive of Hyundai Motor America, told the Los Angeles Times that he was trying to coax South Korean executives to have Hyundai’s overseas manufacturing facilities push out more cars for the U.S. market.

Toyota’s March sales increased 15% over last year, reaching 203,282 vehicles. Hybrid Prius cars stood out among the company’s sales, jumping 54% over 2011 to almost 29,000 vehicles sold this March.

Nissan’s Altima sedan saw sales soar by 27% compared to 2011, rising to 41,050, the highest sales month in the Altima’s history. Ironically, the current Altima is likely to be phased out this year in advance of a updated design that will hit dealerships in the fall, the Los Angeles Times said.

Not everyone shared in March’s good sales news, however.  Honda reported sagging sales for its Accord and Civic lines, which dragged down overall sales for March, down 5% compared to 2011, to 126,999 vehicles.

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