March will be one of the most crucial months for the U.S. auto industry in years.

U.S. consumers bought just under 1.2 million new cars and trucks in February, unchanged from a year ago. That follows a 3 percent drop in January — the first year-over-year decline since August 2010.

So far this year, new vehicle sales have been on pace to hit a little more than 15 million for the year. Last year, the industry sold 15.6 million cars and trucks.

Gutierrez believes sales will recover and hit 16.3 million this year. Pent-up demand from the snowy winter will help, he says, along with low interest rates, attractive lease deals and strong new competitors like the Subaru Forester and Jeep Cherokee.

“We think there is still plenty of time left this year for sales to rebound and kind of get us back on that pace,” he said.

But if the sales pace is less than 16 million to 16.1 million in March and even April — and cold weather is no longer a factor — the industry might have to downgrade its expectations for the year, he said.

General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Volkswagen all reported sales declines in February. GM and Ford said the month started slowly but sales began to recover in the second half. If that momentum continues into March, fears of a broader sales slowdown may prove to be unfounded.

“We expect, heading into the month of March, a very solid spring market,” said John Felice, Ford’s U.S. sales chief.

Some automakers bucked the trend. Subaru’s February sales jumped 24 percent thanks to strong sales of its new SUVs, the Forester and Crosstrek. Chrysler and Nissan also reported double-digit gains, but discounted some key models to get there.

To continue reading the article, please go to http://www.abqjournal.com/362162/biz/march-will-be-test-of-us-auto-demand.html.

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