Brazil’s car and truck manufacturers sold 6.2% more new vehicles in the first quarter than they did a year earlier, thanks in part to lower interest rates, the sector’s main industry group reportedly said on Wednesday.

According to Reuters, Brazil’s National Association of Vehicle Manufacturers (Anfavea) said 353,800 new cars, buses, and trucks were sold in the first three months of 2004 and March sales were particularly robust due to more business days, discounts and better weather.

Nevertheless, Anfavea stuck to its prediction of a 7.8% rise in annual sales to 1.5 million vehicles in 2004, the report added.

“The domestic market has improved, but consumers are being very cautious,” Anfavea president Ricardo Carvalho reportedly told a news conference.

Reuters said General Motors topped the sales charts in the first quarter with 83,321 cars, pickups, and vans while Volkswagen was second (78,055) followed by Fiat (73,891) and Ford (36,798).

The manufacturers’ association reportedly said the sector had produced 500,100 vehicles in the first quarter, 13.5% more than in the first three months of 2003 but is operating at only 54% of full capacity.

Anfavea said export revenues totaled $1.03 billion over the three months, 57.3% higher than the year-earlier period, and also raised its 2004 export prediction 2004 to $6.6 billion from $5.8 billion, well above last year’s $5.5 billion, Reuters added.

In another hint of an improvement in the sector’s outlook, the association reportedly said manufacturers had taken on some more workers after last year was marked by waves of layoffs and work stoppages as the industry was hit by a slump in demand.

At the end of March, the sector employed 92,559 people, up 0.6% from February and 0.4% more than in the year-earlier period, Anfavea said, according to Reuters.

The news agency said the association’s latest monthly report showed the sector made 141,600 vehicle registrations in March, 37.9% more than the year-ago period, which had fewer working days due to the pre-Lenten Carnival holiday – Carnival celebrations fell in February this year.

The March sales result was 35.2% higher than in February, when there were four fewer working days, Reuters added, noting that car sales dropped to their lowest since 1999 last year as the economy contracted 0.2% and suffered a short recession in the first half of the year due to a series of Central Bank interest rate hikes.