DETROIT – March proved to be another dismal month of steep declines for U.S. auto sales as low consumer confidence and job uncertainty continued to keep buyers away from showrooms, but the improvement from February signaled that bargain-hunting buyers may be providing the momentum for a turnaround.
General Motors Corp.'s sales fell 45 percent from a year earlier, while Ford Motor Co. reported a 41 percent drop. Sales at Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan were just a few points better.
Despite the declines from a year ago, GM, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota all posted double-digit improvements from February, when industrywide U.S. sales hit their lowest point in more than 27 years.
Sales are generally better in March as warmer temperatures help drive people to showrooms, but GM said its figures show overall U.S. sales increased about 23 percent from February's figures, beating the typical 20 percent increase and giving rise to optimism that the worst may be over.
Mike DiGiovanni, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis, said the market appears to be "bouncing around the bottom."
Automakers' incentive spending last month reached a record high, according to the auto Web site Edmunds.com.
The average incentive on vehicles sold last month was $3,169, up 30 percent from a year earlier. GM and Hyundai Motor Co. spent more on incentives than they ever have, Edmunds said. Ford said its incentive spending was the same as a year ago.
"Where we are starting to differentiate from our competitors is in the incentive area," said Jim Farley, Ford's group vice president for marketing. "We're getting more traffic. We don't have to close everyone with incentives."
In a further effort to boost sales, Ford and GM on Tuesday announced programs that would cover buyers' monthly car payments in the event they lose their jobs. That follows a similar program Hyundai Motor Co. rolled out earlier this year.
With credit starting to loosen, including aggressive moves by GM's financial arm, the industry might have the worst behind it, DiGiovanni said.
GMAC Financial Services said Wednesday it would earmark $5 billion for consumer auto loans over the next 60 days and lower minimum credit score requirements for financing. That effort should help bring back some buyers who had trouble securing financing after credit conditions tightened last year.
"Might be that there's some momentum perhaps starting to build into March as we go into April," DiGiovanni said. "Maybe we'll get, imagine that, some momentum going."
Detroit-based GM sold a total of 155,334 light vehicles, while Ford's total of 131,102 was just 1,700 shy of Toyota's total.
Auburn Hills-based Chrysler LLC sold 101,001 units, marking its first month above the 100,000-unit mark since September.
Both GM and Ford reported greater demand for cars and crossovers last month, with vehicles in those categories representing 61 percent of Ford's sales.
"People are still moving to the car and crossover segment, which we view is right in our sweet spot this year," said George Pipas, Ford's top sales analyst.
Dearborn-based Ford said demand for its Focus compact car fell 42 percent, and sales of its top seller, the F-series pickups fell 40 percent. Sales of the Expedition and Explorer sport utility vehicles plummeted 73 percent.
At GM, car sales dropped 41 percent, while light truck sales tumbled 47 percent. One bright spot was the Malibu, GM's top-selling sedan. Its sales fell just 2 percent from a year ago to 14,772 units.
Sales at Toyota and Chrysler dropped 39 percent, while Nissan's sales fell 38 percent and Honda reported a 36 percent decline.
The Associated Press reports unadjusted auto sales figures, calculating the percentage change in the total number of vehicles sold in one month compared with the same month a year earlier. Some automakers report percentages adjusted for sales days. There were 25 sales days last month, one less than in March 2008.