- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

DETROIT | Talk of government loans and bankruptcy and a 37 percent drop in March sales isn’t good news but, despite it all, there seems to be a little optimism returning to the U.S. auto industry.

Carmakers’ March sales were dismal compared with last year, but consumers lured by record incentives pushed the February-to-March increase above the normal rise that comes at the end of winter.

“Maybe we’ll get - imagine that - some momentum going,” said Mike DiGiovanni, executive director of global market and industry analysis for General Motors Corp., whose 45 percent sales decline last month was the worst among the major automakers.

Americans bought 857,735 new vehicles in March, compared with 1.36 million in the same month a year ago, Autodata Corp. said Wednesday. But sales jumped nearly 25 percent from February, beating the typical increase of about 20 percent and increasing optimism that the worst may be over for an industry battered by the global recession and bad publicity about GM and Chrysler’s financial woes.

The average incentive on vehicles sold last month was $3,169, up 30 percent from a year earlier and a record high for the industry, according to the auto Web site Edmunds.com.

Mr. DiGiovanni said most automakers finished March stronger than expected, and he thinks the market is “bouncing around the bottom here.”

Tight credit, which some automakers said cost them 20 percent of their sales, started to loosen during the month. GM’s financial arm, GMAC Financial Services, said Wednesday it would lower minimum credit score requirements for auto loans.

Ford Motor Co.’s sales dropped 41 percent, but its economist, Emily Kolinski Morris, also saw signs that the economic decline was moderating in March.

Chrysler LLC saw sales fall 39 percent for the month, but its executives were optimistic because the Auburn Hills, Mich., company sold more than 100,000 vehicles for the first time since last fall.

Honda Motor Co., which on Tuesday cut North American production and offered buyouts to workers, saw a 36 percent sales drop in March, while Nissan Motor Co.’s sales dropped 38 percent. Toyota’s U.S. sales fell 39 percent.

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