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Automakers post disappointing U.S. sales on weak sedan demand


DETROIT  - General Motors Co, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and other major automakers reported weaker-than-expected U.S. sales for March, hurt by declining demand for sedans and light dealer traffic during the Easter weekend.

Sales for the month appeared to be about 16.8 million vehicles on an annualized basis, well below expectations of about 17.25 million, company executives and analysts said. Shares of several automakers fell.

Mark Wakefield, head of AlixPartners' automotive practice, said light dealer traffic over the Easter weekend, which usually falls in April, hampered sales.

Still, he said he remained confident that 2016 sales would exceed the 2015 record of 17.4 million vehicles as relatively low interest rates, strong employment and low gasoline prices support demand for new vehicles, particularly SUVs and pickup trucks.

While Ford Motor Co's and Nissan Motor Co's results topped estimates, those from the remaining top half-dozen automakers in the U.S. market fell short of expectations.

Japanese carmaker Toyota Motor Corp said its sales fell 2.7 percent to 219,842 vehicles. Analysts on average had expected about 239,000, or a rise of about 6 percent, according to a Reuters poll.

Honda Motor Co's sales were up 9.4 percent against analysts' expectations of a 17 percent rise.

Fiat Chrysler's sales rose 8 percent to 213,187 vehicles, well below analysts' estimates of 220,000 to 229,700.

Normally the largest U.S. automaker, GM said its sales rose 0.9 percent to 252,128 vehicles, about 2,600 fewer than crosstown rival Ford's and below the 3 percent increase analysts expected.

Sales to consumers rose 6 percent, GM said, as it pulled back on its sales to rental agencies, which are not as lucrative. The company plans to cut sales to U.S. rental car fleets by 80,000 to 90,000 vehicles this year.

Honda said its U.S. sales rose 9.4 percent, but analysts had expected a 17 percent increase.

By midday, GM and Ford shares were each down around 3 percent while Fiat Chrysler shares were off 4.5 percent. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index was up 0.6 percent.

Ford said its March sales rose 8 percent, narrowly topping analyst expectations. The average selling price of its vehicles increased $1,600, said U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve.

Nissan reported a 13 percent gain on the strength of its mainstay sedans, beating expectations of a rise of 11 percent.