Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group LLC reported on Tuesday slightly better-than-expected U.S. auto sales in March, buoyed by greater demand for sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, while General Motors Co fell short of estimates.
March is expected to be the fifth consecutive month that the industry's annual sales pace has held above 15 million vehicles, a sign that rising home values are helping American consumers feel more confident about buying a new vehicle.
Industry officials also have cited the all-time high average age of cars on the road - more than 11 years - as a major reason for strong demand, as consumers can no longer put off buying a replacement. Several analysts have raised their full-year sales forecasts in the last week.
Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, said March was its best month since May 2007. For Chrysler, the No. 3 automaker, it was the best month since December 2007.
But GM's results fell short of the estimates of at least three analysts. The largest U.S. automaker sold 245,950 cars and trucks in March, up 6.4 percent from a year earlier.
All three U.S. automakers said sales of larger vehicles outpaced their overall gains. Ford posted a 5.7 percent overall sales rise, a 15.4 percent spike in SUVs, such as the Escape crossover, and a 16.3 percent increase in sales of F-Series pickup trucks.
GM said crossover sales were up 31 percent. Sales of pickup trucks that are slowly being phased out rose 6 percent. GM is launching two new truck models later this year, the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra.
"Trucks have improved in lockstep with the housing market, and the strength of the crossover market signals that America's families are more confident about their financial health," said Kurt McNeil, head of GM's U.S. sales operations.
'RESILIENT' U.S. CONSUMER
Auto sales each month are an early indicator of economic health. The auto industry is in the midst of its fourth year of recovery from an economic downturn that pushed GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy in 2009.
Ford sold 236,160 vehicles in March. Chrysler, a unit of Italian automaker Fiat SpA , said sales rose 5 percent to 171,606 vehicles. German automaker Volkswagen AG reported a 3.1 percent increase in U.S. sales to 37,704 vehicles.
VW America CEO Jonathan Browning expressed caution about the strength of the broader U.S. economy, saying there were still "potholes and bumps" on the road to recovery. But he said there were encouraging signs during the second half of March.
"I give credit to the U.S. consumer," Browning said. "The U.S. consumer is one of the most resilient that I've come across around the world."
The U.S. auto market is among the strongest in the world and is increasingly critical for major automakers as European car sales tumble. Sales in Spain, for example, fell 13.9 percent in March, figures released on Tuesday showed.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were expecting an annual sales rate of 15.3 million vehicles in March.
(Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; editing by John Wallace)