DETROIT – U.S. sales of new cars and trucks rose in March, helped by a brighter jobs outlook and rising sales of fuel-efficient vehicles.
New vehicle sales rose 11 percent at General Motors, 16 percent at Ford, 23 percent at Honda and 27 percent at Nissan, all aided by sales of smaller, more efficient cars and crossovers, which look like truck-based SUVs but are more fuel efficient and nimble because they are built on car underpinnings.
Of major automakers, only Toyota Motor Corp. reported a decline, nearly 6 percent.
In March, the economy added 216,000 new jobs, bringing the unemployment rate to a two-year low of 8.8 percent, the Labor Department reported Friday. Companies added workers at the fastest two-month pace since before the recession began in late 2007.
Nearly all companies reported strong sales of small cars during the month, and large car sales generally were down.
But truck sales also were healthy in March for just about every manufacturer, a sign that businesses were buying as the economy continues to recover.
George Pipas, Ford Motor Co.'s top U.S. sales analyst, said small car sales shot up in the first part of March and then stabilized in the last three weeks as gas prices leveled off at around $3.50 per gallon. But Pipas said it's unclear if sales stabilized because of gas prices or if limited selection and availability of small cars dampened sales.
Ford had two months' worth of the Fiesta subcompact at the beginning of March, for example, but that fell to 40 days' supply at the end of the month as sales outpaced production. And the earthquake in Japan pinched supply of some small cars made there like the Toyota Prius and Honda Fit.
General Motors Co. said its overall sales increase was propelled by the new Chevrolet Cruze, its first high-quality small car in years. The vehicle posted an 80 percent sales gain over its lackluster predecessor, the Cobalt. The increase was by far the largest for any GM vehicle last month.
Ford models that saw the strongest sales increases included the Fiesta, whose sales jumped 56 percent from February, and the new Explorer crossover, Fusion sedan and Escape small SU.
Chrysler Group LLC said its 31 percent sales increase was led by midsize sedans such as the Chrysler 200, which was featured in a popular Super Bowl ad, and the Dodge Avenger. Sales growth for cars outpaced trucks, but truck sales still were strong at Chrysler.
Toyota attributed its sales drop to reduced rebates and limited availability of some models due to supply disruptions caused by Japan's earthquake.
Sales were expected to be down from last March, when Toyota offered big discounts to win back buyers after a series of safety recalls. TrueCar.com estimated Toyota's incentives were down 23 percent compared with last March.
J.D. Power and Associates predicted that nearly a quarter of vehicles sold to individual buyers were compact or subcompact cars. That is the highest amount since the Cash for Clunkers program encouraged people to choose more fuel-efficient models in the summer of 2009.
The national average for a gallon of gas hit $3.58 this week, the highest price ever for this time of year. Gas prices have jumped 25.1 cents per gallon in the past month.
GM's midsize crossovers also continued to be hot sellers in March. The Chevy Equinox rose 17 percent and GMC Terrain jumped 29 percent. Sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, the company's most popular vehicle, rose 9 percent.
But the company ended two months of sweet deals and its overall sales growth lagged rivals. After raising discounts by about $400 per vehicle in January and extended them into February, GM then cut them in March.
"The hefty — and costly — incentives from GM in the first two months of the year fell back to earth in March, and that translated into lackluster retail sales," Edmunds Director of Industry Analysis Jessica Caldwell said in a statement.
Other automakers reporting sales Friday included:
— Kia Motors America, with a 44 percent increase from March of last year. The Optima midsize car saw a 90 percent sales increase.
— Honda Motor Co. sales jumped 23 percent to 133,650 vehicles on sales of models with good gas mileage. The subcompact Fit led the way with a 49 percent increase, while Civic compact sales rose more than 40 percent.
— Nissan Motor Co. sales jumped 27 percent for the month, the best month in the company's history. Sales of the Sentra compact more than doubled.
— Hyundai Motor America reported a 32 percent sales jump. Sales of the Elantra compact more than doubled.