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Auto sales bring jobs

Americans flocked to showrooms to buy new cars in March, with several major automakers reporting their strongest monthly sales since before the recession began six years ago.

One analyst said the robust auto sales will create more jobs — and perhaps more manufacturing plants — in the U.S.

Major automakers including Honda, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan all reported increases from March 2012 sales. But at least one southwest Ohio dealer said his new-car sales lagged the nation’s strong performance last month, due in part to the sequestration throwing a financial scare into employees of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and others who hold defense-related jobs in the region.

The U.S. auto industry is a key contributor to southwest Ohio’s economy and to the state’s overall economic health. Extensive Honda operations in west-central Ohio and a DMAX truck-engine plant in Moraine are among multiple employers in the region that are tied to the industry. In addition, sales taxes generated by auto sales are crucial to state and county governments in Ohio and other states.

Sales at Honda — which directly employs more than 13,000 in its Ohio operations — rose 7 percent thanks to strong demand for the Accord and the new Acura RDX crossover. Sales at both GM and Ford jumped 6 percent, with Ford reporting its best month since May 2007. Chrysler sold 5 percent more cars and trucks, its best month since December 2007.

Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen reported small gains. Hyundai’s sales fell 2 percent from March 2012 — but that month was the automaker’s highest sales month ever.

Total sales in March reached 1.45 million, the highest monthly total for the industry since August 2007, according to AutoData. After seeing the pace of March sales, the car-buying site raised its full-year U.S. sales forecast from 15 million to 15.5 million. That’s still below the high of almost 17 million in 2005, but nearly 50 percent better than the 10.4 million vehicles sold in 2009.

The sales figures were so strong that some analysts think automakers will have to increase production and hire more workers to keep up. Automakers have added 125,800 jobs since February of 2010, a nearly 20 percent increase in industry employment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But Michael Robinet — managing director of IHS Automotive, which tracks production — said many U.S. auto plants are running almost around-the-clock to meet demand. By the end of the year, more than half the vehicles made in North America will come from plants running the maximum three shifts, Robinet said.

“We’re really bumping up against the edge,” he said. “So it really is brick-and-mortar time.”

Buyers were lured to showrooms by flashy new vehicles and low interest rates. Plus they continue to replace older cars and trucks — the average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is more than 11 years.

Terry Tobey, owner of Key Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Xenia, said his dealership’s new-car sales fell short of the national average, in part because of financial uncertainty among employees of Wright-Patterson and other defense-related jobs in the region. The unseasonably cold weather and snowfall also hurt, Tobey said.

“But we had absolutely one of our best months ever” in new-truck sales, Tobey said, and used-car sales were also strong. And he’s expecting robust new-car sales in April, based on the level of phone calls, emails and showroom traffic he has seen since late March. “That pent-up demand is still there,” Tobey said.

Larry Taylor, owner of Beau Townsend Ford Lincoln in Vandalia, said his dealership sold 145 new vehicles last month — seven more than last year, a 5 percent increase. It also sold 14 more used cars than the previous March.

“The fact that we did that with a couple of six-inch snowfalls during the month, and losing sales the final weekend because of Easter falling early this year, we’re very pleased,” Taylor said.

Taylor is enthusiastic about the rest of 2013 — and he’s staking his money to his optimism. “I’ve ordered extra vehicles, and I’ve increased the advertising budget,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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