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U.S. Auto Sales March Higher in March

By Michael Ellis

DETROIT (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (7201.T) led U.S. vehicle sales higher in March from weak levels a year ago, when war in Iraq (news - web sites) kept many consumers at home in front of the television.

Nissan, which has rolled out a new pickup truck and sport utility vehicles in recent months, posted a 30.3 percent gain in U.S. sales to an all-time record of 90,494 cars and trucks.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F - news) posted a modest 3 percent gain in sales, snapping a five-month-long losing streak. Results for the second-largest U.S. automaker, which included its overseas brands, showed that strong results for pickup trucks and SUVs offset weaker car sales.

"March was a solid month and tax refunds should help keep spring sales brisk," Jim O'Connor, Ford group vice president of North America marketing, sales and service, said in a statement.

Other automakers were scheduled to release March results later on Thursday. U.S. new car and light truck sales are expected to rise about 4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.6 million to 16.7 million vehicles, according to Wall Street analysts and industry officials.

New car and truck sales are expected to improve from disappointing levels earlier this year, helped by the strengthening economy, the start of the annual spring selling season and improved weather across much of the country.

Stronger sales could help automakers clear excess inventory of unsold cars and trucks, but they're not enough to cause incentives to drop.

General Motors Corp. (NYSE:GM - news) added new sales incentives of an extra $1,000 cash-back and interest-free loans for up to five years on most of its pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, the automaker said on Thursday.

The extra $1,000 "bonus" cash is in addition to cash rebates of up to $3,500 on many models.

Ford said it was adding $500 to the cash-back offer on some versions of its popular F-150 pickup truck, bringing the total rebate on some models to $1,500.

Ford also added $500 to the rebates on its 2004 model Focus car and compact Escape SUV, raising the cash-back offers on those vehicles to $2,500. Ford, which has seen a slow start to sales of its all-new Freestar minivan, raised the customer cash available on that vehicle to $4,000.

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