Toyota Says Auto Sales Leap in March After Three Weak Months

Detroit (TheStreet) -- The auto industry has taken its lumps in the showroom and the stock market this year, but the outlook for March sales appears to finally show the trend has reversed.

This month's auto sales are considered to be a particularly important economic indicator because auto sales have slumped for three consecutive months, leading to a debate over whether the decline reflects a weak economy or simply bad winter weather. Sales were flat in December, down 3% in January and flat in February. Auto sales had been gaining steadily for four years until they showed signs of weakness this winter.

Toyota (TM) took an unusual step, declaring in a news release that the weekend of March 22-23 was its best non-holiday sales weekend of the year, with sales of nearly 20,000 units --- a 12% increase over the same weekend a year earlier.

Toyota said retail sales through March 23 were 4% higher than a year earlier, while combined Midwest and Northeast sales were 5% higher.

"Traffic at dealerships is picking up nationwide, which will benefit industry sales in March," said Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager, in a prepared statement. "At Toyota, we see retail strength in pickups and SUVs, and strong momentum for Camry."

J.D. Power reported that total light-vehicle sales in March were expected to gain 6% to 1.5 million units, while retail sales were expected to gain 7% to 1.2 million units. Fleet sales were expected to account for just 17.3% of the total, which is near the record low of 17.1 million in 2009, the firm said.

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