Chrysler Group and Nissan Motor Co. posted solid gains in March U.S. sales, while Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. recorded their first increases of the year, signaling the auto industry has begun to shake off a sluggish start to 2014.

Among major automakers reporting so far, Chrysler led the advances with a 13 percent rise, followed by Nissan’s 8 percent gain. Ford was up 3 percent, and Toyota chalked up a 5 percent gain. General Motors delayed its report, citing a computer snag.

“March sales turned noticeably higher mid-month and finished strong,” John Felice, Ford’s vice president for U.S. marketing, sales and service, said in a statement.

Toyota Division’s March U.S. sales rose 3 percent to 186,755 units and Lexus volume advanced 23 percent to 28,593. Deliveries of the Toyota Camry increased 11 percent to 41,953 units.

Overall, Toyota Motor Corp.’s light truck sales advanced 11 percent last month while car volume was flat.

GM and Honda Motor Co. will report March sales results later today amid forecasts the industry will rebound from January and February, when severe cold and record snowfall in large parts of the country dented showroom traffic.

Nissan’s results, however, snapped a five-month run of double-digit sales gains in the U.S. market. Still, the Japanese automaker set a monthly U.S. sales record of 149,136 units, with the Nissan brand jumping 8 percent and Infiniti advancing 13 percent.

The company credited double-digit increases in sales of the Rogue crossover, Juke compact crossover and Sentra compact car, as well as strong demand for the mid-sized Altima sedan.

Ford Motor said its retail volume rose 3 percent to 166,030 units. Demand increased 3 percent at the Ford division and 31 percent at Lincoln. Fusion deliveries hit an all-time record of 32,963, Ford said.

F series tops 70,000

Sales of the F-series pickup increased 5 percent to 70,940.

Strong demand for Jeeps and the Ram pickup helped Chrysler Group extend its streak of U.S. gains to 48 months.

Ram pickup deliveries rose 26 percent last month, and sales at Jeep climbed 47 percent to 57,983 units — the best month ever for the brand. The introduction of the mid-sized Cherokee and revamped 2014 Grand Cherokee have bolstered Jeep deliveries in recent months.

Overall, Chrysler’s truck sales rose 34 percent, but car volume skidded 25 percent.

Deliveries rose 24 percent at the Fiat brand, 1 percent at Dodge, and 29 percent at the Ram brand, while volume dropped 23 percent at the Chrysler brand.

The company’s sales have been spurred by new product launches and some of the industry’s highest incentives.

Chrysler offered average incentives of $5,598 on the Ram 1500 pickup last month, Bloomberg reported on Monday, citing data that dealers provided to J.D. Power and Associates.

“We are entering the spring selling season on a high note,” Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales for Chrysler Group, said in a statement.

Hyundai Motor America blamed weather for a 2 percent drop in its March sales.

Bob Pradzinski, vice president of national sales for Hyundai Motor America, said the company’s pace of retail sales accelerated during the second half of March.

He added those gains are forecast “to continue throughout the month of April.”

VW results

Volkswagen brand’s March sales dipped 3 percent to 36,717, though Jetta and Passat volumes rose. It was the 12th straight monthly decline for the marque.

Mark Barnes, vice president of sales for VW of America, said sales of diesel-powered models totaled 9,764 units — or 27 percent of its U.S. sales in March. The company pumped up diesel deliveries by offering $1,000 fuel cards to buyers.

The VW brand, Barnes said, saw some of its strongest sales last month in the Midwest region, where winter weather crimped demand in recent months.

Later today, VW will announce some spiffs for the Beetle convertible to stoke sales in the crucial spring selling season.

Audi record streak

Volkswagen Group’s Audi luxury unit reported March U.S. sales of 14,246 vehicles, an increase of 8 percent, and the brand’s 39th consecutive month of record monthly sales.

Subaru of America said it sold 44,479 vehicles in March, a 21 percent increase from March 2013.

March was the 28th consecutive month of sales increases, and 15th straight double-digit gain for the brand. Subaru is running out the Outback crossover, its biggest seller, and the Legacy sedan. Both will be replaced this summer.

“We are delighted to have once again delivered record results,” said Tom Doll, Subaru of America president. “2014 looks already set to be our seventh year of consecutive sales growth, with more new product to come”

GM said its March sales results were delayed from their normal release at 9:30 a.m. Eastern because of a glitch that impacted sales reports from dealers. The company said in a statement it expects to release sales “before the close of business” today.

Overall, U.S. sales are projected to rise 2 percent from year-earlier levels to 1.48 million light vehicles in March, based on the average of 10 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

Tracking the SAAR

The annualized sales rate, adjusted for seasonal factors, is forecast to climb to 15.8 million units, according to the average of 14 estimates tracked by Bloomberg.

A year level, the figure was 15.3 million units. That’s also been the average SAAR range over the first two months of the year, as the industry lost some momentum from the second half of 2013.

Chrysler today projected the March SAAR will come in at 16.2 million, including about 300,000 medium and heavy-duty trucks. Ford estimated the March sales pace will climb to about 16.5 million, including medium-duty and heavy trucks.

After a 1 percent decline in overall U.S. sales over January and February, automakers ratcheted up the deals last month to draw shoppers.

The average incentive per light vehicle was approximately $2,773 in March, an increase of 7.9 percent from March 2013 and 2.6 percent higher than February, TrueCar estimates.

Incentives brewing

Larry Dominique, president of ALG and executive vice president of TrueCar, said the spring thaw resulted in a slight increase in vehicle sales last month, but not the improvement many analysts and automakers are counting on.

He said incentives rose at a rate four-times greater than industry sales in March, forcing a final rush to discount in the last week of the month and setting the stage for equally aggressive deals in April.

“An incentive-fueled battle is on the horizon,” Dominique said.

Analysts expect the March selling rate to rise along with spring temperatures.

At the top of the range, IHS Automotive and Barclay’s forecast a seasonally adjusted annualized sales rate of 15.9 million. At the bottom, Kelley Blue Book projects a SAAR of 15.6 million, up from both February’s 15.4 million rate.

March sales were also aided by five full weekends.

“Solid March sales pushed first-quarter industry results ahead of last year’s pace despite one of the harshest winters on record,” Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager, said in a statement. “Toyota dealers had their two best sales weekends of the year late in the month, and we’re optimistic that momentum will spring us in into April.”

On Friday, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said March could finish strong, aided by rising incentives. There would also be a healthy tilt toward retail sales over fleet, he said. Still, demand would be softer than had been previously forecast.

“We expect a late spring surge in sales fueled by credit availability, favorable loan terms and competitive incentives,” he said.

VW’s Barnes said today Volkswagen sees total industry sales for 2014 coming in at between 15.8 million and 16 million units.