DETROIT – U.S. auto sales picked up speed in the second half of March, automakers say, but not enough to rescue a lackluster first quarter.
Analysts estimate new car and truck sales rose around 2 percent over last March, to a total of 1.5 million vehicles. That would mean flat sales for the January-March period, a disappointment for an industry that has grown used to bigger gains.
Chrysler was an outlier. Its sales jumped 13 percent in March, helped by strong demand for the new Jeep Cherokee and the Ram pickup. Nissan also outpaced the industry, with sales up 8 percent.
Ford's sales were up 3 percent. Ford's U.S. sales chief John Felice says demand picked up in the middle of the month. F-Series truck sales were up 5 percent, but sales of the Escape SUV were flat.
Volkswagen's sales fell 3 percent.
More automakers will report March sales later Tuesday. General Motors warned that its sales data would be later than usual because of a computer issue.
Based on the industry's performance in March, Jesse Toprak, the chief analyst for the car buying site Cars.com, 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.
Toprak said the fundamentals that helped the industry rebound from the recession remain the same. Low interest rates, declining unemployment and attractive new vehicles will continue to bring buyers into showrooms — just not at the pace of the last few years. Since 2010, U.S. sales have grown an average of 10 percent each year, but they're now reaching a natural peak.
"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.
LMC Automotive, a data firm, also lowered its annual sales forecast, to 16.1 million vehicles from 16.2 million.
Others said improving weather and increases in incentives should boost sales as spring progresses. Weaker-than-expected sales in January and February caused cars to pile up on dealer lots, and automakers will likely offer more deals to get them sold.
"The momentum built in March should set the market up for a big month in April," said Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book.
Chrysler said Jeep brand sales rose 47 percent, largely due to the Cherokee, which went on sale last fall. Sales of its bigger sibling, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, were up 26 percent. And Chrysler's best-seller, the Ram truck, rose 26 percent to 42,532.
Chrysler's minivan sales were also up. Minivan sales usually rise in the spring, as families plan for summer road trips. Dodge Caravan sales jumped 27 percent to 14,165.