DETROIT — U.S. auto sales went out like a lion in March.
Automakers said Tuesday that new car and truck sales picked up speed halfway through the month, culminating in a strong final weekend. Industry sales for the month rose 6 percent to 1.5 million vehicles, far outpacing analysts' expectations and the fastest pace since November, according to Autodata Corp.
The month saw some big gainers. Chrysler's sales rose 13 percent on demand for Ram pickups and the new Jeep Cherokee SUV. Subaru's sales were up 21 percent as sales of its new Forester SUV jumped 53 percent to nearly 14,000.
Toyota's sales rose 5 percent, though sales of the Prius hybrid fell 16 percent. On the positive side, demand for its pickups and SUVs was strong.
General Motors' sales were up 4 percent despite a series of safety recalls of older-model vehicles. Buick saw double-digit gains because of its new Encore SUV, and sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup rose 7 percent.
Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst with the car shopping site Edmunds.com, said buyer consideration for GM brands on Edmunds' website has remained steady despite the recall crisis, which is currently the subject of several federal investigations.
"Shoppers still see it as a trusted brand," she said.
Nissan's sales were up 8 percent. Ford's rose 3 percent, with a 5 percent gain for the F-Series pickup compensating for lower car sales.
Volkswagen's sales fell 3 percent, while Hyundai and Honda both saw 2 percent declines.
While first-quarter sales topped expectations, they didn't grow as quickly as last year, when the industry saw a 6 percent sales increase in the same three-month period.
Jesse Toprak, the chief analyst for the car-buying site Cars.com, said the fundamentals that helped autos rebound from the recession remain the same. Low interest rates, declining unemployment and attractive new vehicles will continue to bring buyers into showrooms.
But they won't be buying at the same pace. Since 2010, U.S. sales have grown an average of 10 percent each year, but they're now reaching a natural peak, he said.
"We are certainly transitioning from a market that was in hyper-recovery mode to a mature market where double-digit gains will be increasingly difficult to attain," Toprak said.
Based on the first quarter, Toprak lowered his full-year U.S. sales forecast to 16.1 million vehicles from 16.5 million. The industry sold 15.6 million cars and trucks in 2013.