By Karl Henkel
Automakers posted some of their strongest sales figures in years during March, and the Chevrolet Cruze was one car leading the way.
Sales of the Lordstown-built compact car surged 20 percent last month compared to a year ago, and General Motors Co., which sold 231,052 vehicles, saw sales jump 11.8 percent.
GM sold 21,607 Cruzes in March; last March, it sold 18,018.
“It was a good month,” said Tom Mock, GM Lords-town spokesman. “It’s another strong showing. We’ve had seven-consecutive months of year-over-year sales increases. It looks like it will be a strong seller for the foreseeable future.”
Lordstown manufactured 26,505 Cruzes last month and has a 73-day field supply.
It finished fourth behind the Honda Civic (31,213 sales), Ford Focus (28,562) and Toyota Corolla (28,289) in the compact-car segment.
But the Cruze wasn’t the only car leading GM’s charge.
GM’s fleet of vehicles that get better than 30 miles per gallon was the driving force behind the sales bump as gas prices continue to escalate near or exceed $4 per gallon nationwide.
The automaker said it sold 100,000 cars and crossovers that achieve an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated 30 mpg or better, a one-month record. That included a record number of Chevrolet Volts.
Volt sales intensified by 276.5 percent, jumping from 608 sales in March 2011 to 2,289 sales last month.
“The economic recovery and a deep bench of fuel-efficient cars and crossovers have been driving our sales for more than a year, but the combined impact has never been stronger than it was in March,” said Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. Sales Operations.
“Since the last time fuel prices spiked, both the economy and GM’s product portfolio are undeniably stronger. We’re now strong across the board in cars, crossovers and trucks,” Johnson added.
GM has sold 57,083 Cruzes during the first three months of 2012, up 13.7 percent from the same period a year ago.
Meanwhile, Chrysler Group reported its best monthly sales since 2008, selling 163,381 vehicles. Sales climbed 34 percent.
Chrysler was narrowly topped by Volkswagen, which saw a 34.6 percent spike in sales, selling 36,588 vehicles.
Ford Motor Co. sales reached 223,418, increasing 5 percent in March, the best March sales total in five years.
Hyundai Motor Co. set an all-time record for U.S. auto sales with 69,728, up 13 percent compared to the same month last year.
Nissan also set a record, selling 136,317 vehicles in March, up 12.5 percent.
One analyst speculated on the auto-sales increase.
“It’s the combination of the economy continuing to improve as well as people seeing the gas-price spike and going out and purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles,” said Kristen Andersson, auto analyst at TrueCar.com.
March’s surge was coupled with a spike in transaction prices, Andersson said.
The average transaction price jumped 6.9 percent, or nearly $2,000, compared to last March.
“It seems a little bit counterintuitive when consumers are buying these fuel-efficient vehicles,” she said. “They still want all of the amenities they are used to, and that has been driving up the transaction prices.”