DETROIT — General Motors, Toyota and Ford posted U.S. sales gains in March as industrywide incentives and improving consumer confidence brought buyers back to showrooms.
Toyota, whose U.S. sales had fallen 12 percent in January and February after it recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide, said Thursday its March sales rose 41 percent compared with those in the month a year earlier.
Ford said its sales rose 40 percent, and General Motors reported a 43 percent increase for its four brands not being shut down or sold. GM's sales were up 21 percent overall, as Pontiac and the other doomed brands nearly exhausted their remaining inventories. Sales rose 43 percent at Nissan, 22 percent at Honda and 15 percent at Hyundai.
Ford and GM were each offering zero-percent loans, while Toyota's Asian competitors also dangled some combination of zero-percent deals and lease discounts to shoppers. In contrast, Chrysler, despite offering similar deals, reported a decline of 8 percent.
The result was the country's best new-vehicle sales month since September 2008, excluding the government's monthlong cash-for-clunkers rebate program last year. Sales increased 24 percent, the industry's largest year-over-year increase in eight years.
Data from Edmunds.com, which tracks vehicle sales and provides car-buying information, showed that GM and Ford each spent about the same amount per vehicle on incentives last month as they did in February. No-interest financing deals generally cost automakers less than cash-back rebates, even though consumers might save more from a zero-percent loan.
But Toyota's incentive spending jumped 44 percent, or nearly $700 a vehicle, to $2,256, a record.
GM's vice president for U.S. marketing, Susan Docherty, said a quarter of vehicles sold were new for the 2010 model year and came with few discounts. She said GM was now disciplined enough not to rely heavily on incentives.
"We've been down that road before, and we know it's a dead end," Docherty said in a conference call. "It's really important that we earn our market share. We're not interested in buying it."
Ford, too, said it hoped to entice consumers by promoting its vehicles as good values, not with discounts. It plans to begin a campaign next week around that philosophy, said Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president for U.S. sales and marketing.
"Our product is the difference at Ford," Czubay said. "When you add value to the product, you don't have to go after the incentive game."