U.S. auto sales continued at a robust pace in March, boosted by consumers with more confidence in a recovering economy who want to buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks in the face of rising gasoline prices.
"We feel higher gas prices are accelerating sales, not hurting sales," AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson told CNBC Tuesday. "The industry has gone all-in on efficiency on all vehicles and people are walking in and see they don’t have to give up on size or performance to get 20 percent fuel efficiency."
Jackson is so confident about the state of the auto industry he raised his expectations of nationwide sales "sooner than I expected" to 14.5 million for the year from his previous forecast of 14 million.
But they can go even higher, perhaps as high as 16 million vehicles sold, if you take into account the number of households being formed needing at least one car, Jackson said.
After holding on to their cars for, on average, 10.8 years, there's pent-up customer demand for new vehicles now that it is easier to get credit, Jackson said.
AutoNation's March domestic sales rose 15 percent and are up 26 percent from March 2011, he said. Sales were good across the Sunbelt, where AutoNation is based, and across the board from domestic vehicles to imports to luxury brands.
Ford Motoralso had a good month, announcing the best March for new-vehicle sales in the U.S. in five years.
Ford Americas President Mark Fields told CNBC on Tuesday the sales performance was due to pent-up demand as well as the recent mild weather and demand for fuel-efficient cars.
General Motors' monthly sales rose 11.8 percent in March, less than the 20.6 percent rise that had been expected. GM's vice president of sales, Don Johnson, told CNBC he is "pretty pleased" with that gain anyway. "Our results are all about Chevrolet and GMC," he said.
Toyota sales rose 15.4 percent, selling more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time since 2008. Sales of the company's vehicles were previously estimated to rise by 22.1 percent. Toyota's US president, Jim Lentz, told CNBC sales of hybrid vehicles are "outstripping our ability to produce. We're still below in some series, but we're getting very, very close."
Nissan Motor Co said its sales in March rose 12.5 percent, and Volkswagen AG said its March sales soared 35 percent — its the best U.S. March sales since 1973.
Chrysler's sales increased 34 percent, the best monthly sales in four years.
Hyundai said it had the best monthly U.S. sales on record.