April 4 (Bloomberg) -- Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius hybrid was the third best-selling U.S. car line last month, helping Asian automakers post a 10 percent sales increase amid improving consumer demand for new vehicles.
Sales of Prius, now a four-model “family,” climbed 54 percent to a record 28,711 in March, trailing only Toyota’s Camry sedan and Nissan Motor Co.’s midsize Altima. Total Toyota deliveries rose 15 percent, Nissan sales increased 13 percent and Hyundai Motor Co. had a 13 percent gain. Honda Motor Co. sales fell 5 percent, the only drop among large Asian brands, based on figures separately released by the carmakers yesterday.
“There’s still some residual demand out there for Prius, and Toyota now has the volume to meet it,” said Alan Baum, principal of Baum & Associates, a provider of auto-industry analysis in West Bloomfield, Michigan. “They’re going to hit this while demand is strong.”
Job gains and buyers who put off car purchases during the recession countered a 20 percent increase in average U.S. unleaded gasoline prices this year through March. Industrywide car and truck sales rose 13 percent last month, sending the industry to the best quarterly pace since 2008.
“When gasoline prices are high, what makes carmakers competitive is whether they have a fuel-efficient car like the Prius,” Kohei Takahashi, a Tokyo-based auto analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co., said by telephone today. “The trend is to downsize, too, which makes the Prius even more competitive.”
Toyota rose 0.8 percent to 3,585 yen as of 10:03 a.m. in Tokyo trading, Nissan declined 0.3 percent to 897 yen, and Honda dropped 0.3 percent to 3,190 yen. Hyundai rose 2 percent to 260,000 won in Seoul trading.
“In the United States, consumers are replacing aging cars and volumes are likely to increase to 14 million or 14.5 million units this year,” Carlos Ghosn, chief executive officer of Nissan and Renault SA, said yesterday at an automotive forum in New York.
U.S. deliveries accelerated to a 14.4 million seasonally adjusted annual rate from 13.1 million a year earlier, according to researcher Autodata Corp. U.S. automakers General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC reported respective increases of 12 percent, 5 percent and 34 percent.
Japanese and South Korean automakers sold 668,385 vehicles last month, up from 604,943 a year ago, to give a market share of 47.6 percent, according to Autodata.
Analysts at Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank AG, Citigroup Inc. and TrueCar.com last month increased their estimates for full-year sales by an average of 550,000 vehicles to 14.5 million. IHS Automotive said yesterday it estimates 14.2 million light-vehicle deliveries in the U.S. this year, up from a previous estimate of 14 million.
Toyota, Asia’s largest automaker, sold 203,282 Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles in March, its highest U.S. volume since 2008. The percentage increase for the Toyota City, Japan-based company matched an expected 15 percent gain for the month, the average of seven analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News.
Camry, the top-selling U.S. car for the past 10 years, had a 35 percent jump in deliveries to 42,567, Toyota said. Sales of the model grew in part because of higher fleet business during the month than average, Jeff Bracken, vice president of U.S. Toyota brand sales, said on a conference call yesterday.
Toyota’s fleet sales were 13.7 percent of its total in March and may remain at that level in April, higher than an average monthly rate of about 10 percent, he said.
The elevated fleet sales rate in the first quarter is the result of Toyota fulfilling orders to rental-car companies it couldn’t meet last year after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami cut vehicle production, Bracken said.
Toyota’s U.S. market share rose to 14.5 percent in March from 14.1 percent a year earlier, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata.
Honda’s sales decline in March missed an estimate for a 5.3 percent increase for the Tokyo-based company, the average of seven analysts’ forecasts. Combined sales of Honda- and Acura-brand autos were 126,999, down from 133,650 a year ago.
Deliveries of the Accord model, Honda’s biggest-volume U.S. vehicle, fell 15 percent, ranking it eighth among the market’s top-selling cars last month. Honda’s market share in the U.S. shrank to 9 percent in March from 10.7 percent a year ago.
The CR-V compact sport-utility vehicle was the bright spot for the carmaker, rising 40 percent to a record 30,868 units.
“Sometimes when a company has lost its footing, it takes a while to get its mojo back,” Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of researcher Edmunds.com, said in an interview in New York yesterday. “Sometimes the old formula doesn’t work for you anymore and you’ve got to find a new one.”
Nissan and Infiniti brand sales rose 13 percent to a record 136,317, exceeding the average of seven analysts’ estimates for an 11 percent gain. Yokohama-based Nissan outsold Honda, which it’s seeking to top in U.S. deliveries on an annual basis for the first time since 1987. The gain was led by Altima sales, which surged 27 percent to 41,050.
Nissan’s market share was 9.7 percent in March, unchanged from a year ago, according to Autodata.
“Nissan should increase sales by at least 14 percent to 1.2 million units in the U.S.” in 2012, Ghosn said. Nissan’s global sales will rise 12 percent this year to 5.4 million vehicles, giving the company a global market share of 6.8 percent, he said.
While Honda and Toyota slowed output at North American plants for months after Japan’s earthquake in March last year, Nissan restarted full production in the region within weeks.
Hyundai and affiliate Kia Motors Corp., South Korea’s two largest automakers, each said U.S. sales in March were at record highs of 69,728 and 57,505 units, respectively.
Combined sales of the partner companies, which operate separately, rose 20 percent last month to 127,233 cars and light trucks. That exceeded an expected 18 percent increase, the average of seven analysts’ estimates.
Subaru, the auto brand of Fuji Heavy Industries, said its sales rose 20 percent, and Mazda Motor Corp.’s increased 4.8 percent. Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors Corp. reported a 5.3 percent decline and Suzuki Motor Corp.’s sales gained 5.4 percent.
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