General Motors posted a 43 percent jump in U.S. sales for March from a year earlier in its continuing brands, the first of expected sharp gains by automakers driven by incentives and better weather.

Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> expects its March U.S. sales to be up as much as 40 percent from a year earlier as it digs out from a drop in sales that followed its massive vehicle recalls and Ford Motor Co also expects a sharp sales increase.

Ford, Toyota and other automakers will report U.S. sales later on Thursday. Last month, Ford overtook GM to be the No. 1 seller in the United States for the first time since 1998.

Toyota launched unprecedented discounts in March to try to win back customers including zero-percent financing for five years on top models such as the Camry sedan.

GM said March U.S. sales rose 40.6 percent for Chevrolet, 41.8 percent for Cadillac, 44.9 percent for GMC and 75.8 percent for Buick. Including all of its discontinuing brands, GM sales rose 20.6 percent for the month from the prior year.

Newer GM models like the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain and Buick Lacrosse continued to see strong sales, GM said.

AutoNation Inc Chief Executive Mike Jackson, head of the largest U.S. dealership network, said in an interview with CNBC on Thursday that he expected the industry to break the 12 million vehicle mark for an annualized rate in March.

U.S. auto sales ran at a 10.8 million vehicle annualized rate in January and at about 10.4 million in February.

Influential tracking service J.D. Power and Associates has raised its outlook for full year U.S. auto industry sales to 11.7 million vehicles, from 11.5 million vehicles.


Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz said earlier this week that industrywide auto sales could be about 11.5 million vehicles in the seasonally adjusted annualized rate followed by economists and industry followers.

In remarks on Wednesday at the New York auto show, Toyota executives said the automaker's March U.S. sales could be up as much as 40 percent from a year earlier, which it believed would be stronger than the industry overall.

The automaker offered broad incentives to jump-start sales in March after the massive safety recalls in January and February that also led to production halts for a week on some of Toyota's best-selling cars and trucks.

Toyota's U.S. market share fell to 13.4 percent in the first two months of 2010 from nearly 17 percent for 2009.

Toyota traditionally has spurned steep discounts to protect resale values and has said that it would announce its plans for incentives in April next week while executives hinted that they were likely to continue.

Ford said on Monday it expected U.S. sales for its Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands to be higher in March than in March 2009 by a percentage amount consistent with recent months.

U.S. sales rose 43 percent in February, 24 percent in January and 33 percent in December for the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands overall. Ford on Sunday announced a definitive agreement to sell its other brand, Volvo, to China's Geely.

Ford U.S. sales chief Ken Czubay told Reuters on March 25 that he expected the automaker's U.S. sales to outpace the industry in March, giving it market share gains in 17 of the last 18 months.

Ford increased its U.S. market share in 2009, the first full-year increase since 1995. Its U.S. market share rose more than 1 full percentage point in 2009 to 15.5 percent not including Volvo.

Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> on Wednesday said its March US sales could be up 35 percent from the prior year. Nissan said it would not resort to incentives to drive share gains.

Hyundai Motor Co's <005380.KS> U.S. sales rose 15.4 percent in March from a year earlier, in line with a forecast that Hyundai USA President John Krafcik gave at the New York auto show earlier this week.

Chrysler, now under the management control of Italy's Fiat SpA , is the only large automaker expected to post a U.S. sales decline in March from a year earlier.

A Chrysler executive said last week that he expected the automaker to post a sales decline of about 10 percent for March from the same month in 2009, when heavy incentives supported its sales in the weeks before a U.S. autos task force report.

(Additional reporting by James Kelleher, Soyoung Kim, Helen Massy-Beresford and Chang-Ran Kim, editing by Dave Zimmerman)