March proved incentives work. Battered by recalls and a tarnished image, Toyota cranked up the cash machine to record levels and all was forgiven. March sales skyrocketed 86.8% compared to February and, adjusted for selling days, finished 35.3% ahead of March 2009 at 186,863 units. There was a lot of soaring in March; double-digit improvements were the order of the day as US light vehicle sales reached 1,063,872 for the month and a seasonally adjusted annualised sales rate (SAAR) of 11.78m cars and light trucks. That’s more than 2m sales ahead of March 2009 and 1.4m better than February 2010. YTD, the first quarter was up 15.6% to 2,538,852. A pared-down General Motors finished at the top with sales up 16.4% to 188,167, putting it just 0.6% ahead of Toyota and 2.5% ahead of Ford. Strong performances by key crossovers, supported by good numbers spread across most of its light truck lines, did the trick but at a price: GM led the industry in March incentive spending. Though Toyota knocked Ford back into the No. 3 spot last month (181,588 units), the folks in Dearborn are still No. 2 in year-to-date (YTD) sales (437,033). The F-Series became the first to break the 100,000-unit mark in 2010 (103,039 to the end of March) and the Fusion kept its place as the best-selling American-badged car (51,411). Ford’s 35.2% March gain was good enough to add two points of market share to the blue oval’s holdings. Chrysler was the only major automaker to miss its March 2009 numbers, down 11.7% to 92,423 adjusted for daily selling rate (DSR). Chrysler dropped behind Nissan (95,468) to sixth place among the top car companies. In a pickup market that is growing again, the Ram was the only full-size truck to post a loss in March. Chrysler officials noted they had been seeing big gains in retail sales. That’s a good sign: Chrysler was the only automaker to cut incentive spending in comparison to both February 2010 and March 2009. Honda sales grew 17.8% t0 108,262 with a nice boost from Acura’s MDX and a 22.5% increase in incentives compared to February 2010. Nissan cut the cash by 2.8% but saw its sales jump a healthy 37.8% thanks to solid showings from the Versa, Cube and Maxima. Mazda added another month in the black, 1.5% ahead of its year-ago results to 23,193 and even Mitsubishi came in with a 13.1% gain to 5,434 thanks to good Galant sales. Subaru set an all-time sales record in the first quarter as well (57,494) as a record March (23,785) thanks to excellent numbers from the Legacy and Outback. Suzuki, on the other hand, continues to struggle: sales plunged 72.9 percent in March to just 2,246 units. Hyundai sales grew almost 11% and Kia beat their year-ago mark by 18.8% as both brands set new first-quarter (188,206) and March (77,524) records. Kia’s new US-built Sorento was its volume leader. Volkswagen led the Europeans, up 33.4% to 30,737. Mercedes-Benz remained at the top of the premium segment (20,734) though the Smart is still having trouble. BMW volume was up slightly, but sales were down 1.4% to 21,670 adjusted for DSR. April is usually light for sales: look for Toyota to keep stoking the incentives and for its competition to do the same.