Automakers marched out of winter last month, as buyers left their homes and hit the show rooms after frigid temperatures went down.
Sales trumped analysts’ expectations for March, raising the seasonally adjusted annualized rate to 16.3 million – well above the 15.8 million they projected.
That came out to 1.5 million cars sold last month, signaling the industry is on track to have its best year since 2007.
A big part of that came from rising temperatures near the end of the month, said John McElroy, an independent auto sales analyst based in Michigan. Buyers were eager to get out, he said, after spending the last two months away from the showrooms.
“It was an extremely strong month,” McElroy said. “Dealers said the last few days of the month had become a buying frenzy.”
Most companies posted astounding gains for the month compared to the same time last year, with Chrysler rising 13 percent – the biggest of any automaker in March.
Jeep sales, up 47 percent from March 2013, carried the company with a demand for all-wheel drive vehicles because of rough weather at the beginning of the month. Demand was high for the Patriot, Wrangler and Cherokee models. Sales were boosted by the new Cherokee, which wasn’t available this time last year.
Toyota, Nissan and Ford also posted strong gains, after so-so starts to the year.
After falling in February, Toyota about-faced: going up almost 5 percent in March compared to a year earlier, selling 215,348 models, despite being put on federal probation last month for accelerator problems.
Nissan had one of its best months, increasing more than 8 percent, after selling 149,136 between its flagship brand and Infiniti models.
A demand for trucks and luxury vehicles helped Ford gain a 3-percent increase. Lincoln, the company’s luxury line, increased 31 percent compared to March 2013 – a second straight month of growth that carried its parent company.
The demand for entry-level luxury cars like Lincoln’s MKZ is in part from consumers once again being able to afford them, said Kevin Tynan, a Bloomberg analyst. Consumers in this market are out there, he said, and March’s sales show they’re coming out of the woodwork.
“We’re seeing historically high lease penetration,” he said. “We’re in an environment of low interest rate and pretty strong residual rates in used-car value.”
General Motors increased 4 percent, carried by what auto dealers say is a spring-time interest in anything other than trucks.
At Sunrise Chevrolet, in Forest Hills, Queens, sales for sedans and sports cars went up for March as springtime rolled in, said salesman Engin Cetin. That comes after two months of high truck demands.
“It’s basically Camaro season right now,” he said. “A lot of people are coming in, leasing or buying.”
The GM increase came as a surprise as the company undergoes scrutiny for its handling of faulty ignitions in Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions, which killed 12 people.
GM’s numbers were delayed because of computer glitches. They were released as the company’s CEO, Mary Barra, gave an apologetic testimony to Congress on the haywire ignitions.
McElroy said shoppers won’t be deterred because the models in question stopped being produced in 2010 and 2007, respectively.
“For the general public, it’s largely invisible,” he said. “GM had a decent month and right along with the rest of the industry.”