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) -- Auto sales continued to improve in March even as the auto industry looks ahead to the introductions this year of new products led by the year's most anticipated new model,


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new Chevrolet Silverado K2XX pickup truck.

About two dozen new cars and SUVs will be rolled out at the New York Auto show, with several including the new


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Highlander scheduled to be revealed at the show's media day on Wednesday.

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J.D. Power affiliate LMC Automotive and Kelley Blue Book forecast that March U.S. light-vehicle sales will increase 8% to 1.5 million units. They see an average monthly sales rate of 15.2 million to 15.3 million units, up from 14.1 million units in March 2012. Retail sales, the most accurate indication of consumer sentiment, are expected to increase 10% to 1.2 million units, LMC Automotive said. Additionally, in another positive sign for the industry, the average retail transaction price in March was $28,504, up 3% from a year earlier, the firm said.

"Building on the current performance, we expect the economic environment to improve throughout 2013, as the likelihood of a dark cloud slowing the recovery pace diminishes," said LMC analyst Jeff Schuster, in a prepared statement. "Consumers do not appear phased by headwinds from Washington, as growth in auto sales are outperforming earlier expectations." Schuster noted that more than 50 new models are in various stages of production.

Kelley Blue Book analyst Alec Gutierrez said in a prepared statement that "sales will be boosted by record low interest rates and a slowly improving job market (and by) attractive financing and ample inventory." Kelley expects March sales gains to total 10% at


and 9% at


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, led by the new Accord. The firm sees a 7% gain for GM, a 5% gain for


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, a 3% gain for


and a 3% gain for Toyota.

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Looking ahead, GM has said it will build the first K2XX (pictured) in the second quarter, which begins next week. "We will continue to bring up plants and introduce new body styles over several months," said spokesman James Cain. Deliveries to dealers are likely to begin during the quarter.

In a recent report, Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold said GM expects to position the new truck, as well as the GMC Sierra, "as bookends to the F-Series, with the Silverado aimed toward providing value as a work truck, and the Sierra as a higher-end, premium vehicle." GM hopes to close a pricing gap of around $500 to $1,000 with Ford F-Series and to capture 40% of the pickup truck market, he said.

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-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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Ted Reed