March US auto sales, due to be reported next week, will show strong growth over February's pace and a significant increase over last year's pandemic hit numbers. The seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of sales this month is forecast by Cox Automotive to hit 16.5m, up from February's 15.7m pace and well above March 2020's dismal 11.4m level. 

Sales volume is forecast to increase nearly 50% over last March and reach 1.48m units. While sales in the first quarter have been healthy, they remain below pre-pandemic levels. Total sales in Q1 2021, forecast at 3.77m units, will be up 8.7% versus Q1 2020 but down 4.9% from Q1 2019 when 3.97m sales were reported.

The sales recovery has been choppy since September. The SAAR has bounced around between the upper-15 to mid-16m levels over the past six months. A return to the higher end is expected in March. The sales pace should improve this month after being hampered by winter storms that disrupted much of the country in February. With the deep freeze impacting markets as far south as Houston and disrupting millions of lives and businesses for days, many sales were likely delayed into early March. Also, the distribution of stimulus cheques is well under way, and Cox said it had already noticed upward movement in daily sales tracking numbers as a result. 

"Inventory levels are tight right now, though, and this could hinder the market in coming months," said Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist, Cox Automotive. "Supply chain disruptions that continue to plague the industry are adding to the short supply situation. Although lean inventories have not had much impact on buyers in the first quarter, that will likely change as we move into Q2. The production disruptions happening now will turn into even lower inventory in the months ahead."

In March, new light vehicle sales are forecast to increase by 490,000 units, or nearly 50%, compared to March 2020. When compared to last month, sales are expected to rise nearly 300,000 units, or 25.4%. 

The SAAR in March 2021 is estimated to be 16.5m, above last year's 11.4m level and an increase from last month's 15.7m pace. There are 26 selling days this month, one more than last year and two more than February, so additional time will also help lift sales.

Year-over-year comparisons will become less relevant in the months ahead as large year-over-year increases are reported. Compared to March 2019, sales volume this month is forecast to be down by more than 8%. March 2019 had one additional selling day than March 2021.

First quarter sales are forecast to be up 8.7% compared to Q1 2020 but down 4.9% versus Q1 2019.