By Susan Taylor
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian auto sales inched just 0.2 percent higher in March from a year earlier, figures on Tuesday showed, but an independent auto industry analyst said the modest increase masked a solid performance during severe winter weather, especially in comparison with the record sales of March 2013.
Canadian sales rose to 157,060 vehicles in March from 156,680 the year before, marking the second-best March on record, said Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.
"Being up by a sliver isn't shooting the lights out, but when put in the context of a never-ending winter and strong year-ago sales, then current sales levels should be applauded rather than scorned," he wrote in a report.
Truck sales climbed 5.1 percent to 90,851 vehicles from 86,475 last year, while car sales went in the opposite direction, falling 5.7 percent to 66,209 vehicles, the DesRosiers report said.
"Perhaps the biggest ongoing dynamic is the strength in the light truck market," he wrote. That trend is also evident in year-to-date figures, with truck sales up 6.3 percent and auto sales down 6.2 percent.
Demand for Detroit 3 branded vehicles slipped 1.1 percent in March to 68,661 vehicles, the report said, while sales of other makers were 1.3 percent higher at 88,399 vehicles.
Chrysler Canada, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles , took the top sales spot, as strong demand for its trucks offset a slump in car sales.
Car sales tumbled by 33.5 percent to 3,469 from 5,217, the company said. Truck sales climbed by 11.7 percent to 21,180 from 18,956. Chrysler Canada's total sales for the month rose 2 percent to 24,649 from 24,173 in the same period last year.
Year to date, Chrysler's total sales were up 4.9 percent at 60,869 vehicles, with truck sales 10.8 percent higher and car sales down 21.4 percent. The company said the results marked its best first quarter and March sales since 2000.
Total March sales at Ford Motor Co of Canada fell 10.7 percent to 22,390 vehicles from 25,082, DesRosiers' data showed. Ford had not yet issued its own figures late on Tuesday afternoon.
General Motors Canada , which was also expected to release its data on Tuesday afternoon, had a 7.8 percent jump in sales, DesRosiers' report said. Total sales increased to 21,790 vehicles, from 20,218 in the same period last year.
Toyota Canada Inc <7203.T> said its March sales rose 6.8 percent to 17,397 cars and trucks, lifting first quarter sales 6.2 percent above the same period last year.
The results included March records for the 2014 Toyota Highlander and Toyota Tundra, the company said.
Sales of Toyota-branded vehicles rose 5.9 percent in March, to 15,509, while Lexus brand sales soared 30.5 percent to a record 1,594. The company said it sold 294 Scion vehicles.
Workers at Toyota Canada are expected to vote next week on whether to join Canada's largest private-sector union, Unifor. The results will not be known until later in April.
Honda Canada Inc <7267.T> reported a 6 percent rise in March sales to 15,292 vehicles. Sales of Honda brands rose 5.4 percent to 13,454 and Acura brand sales climbed 6.4 percent to 1,838.
Year-to-date sales in the Honda division were up 8.7 percent to 28,099 vehicles, the company said, while sales in the Acura unit were 0.9 percent higher at 3,721 vehicles.
In the United States, auto sales inched up more than expected in March after two months in which weather reduced demand, and at least two auto industry executives said a more robust sales rebound could come in April.
Ford reported a 3 percent rise in U.S. sales; Toyota a 5 percent gain, and Chrysler Group, a 13 percent increase from a year earlier.
(Reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe; and Peter Galloway)