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US auto sales accelerated in second half of March, 1.5 mil. vehicles sold

DETROIT -- U.S. auto sales beat expectations in March.

Automakers said Tuesday that new car and truck sales picked up speed halfway through the month, culminating in a strong final weekend. Toyota dealers had their two best sales weekends of the year at the end of the month, the company said.

“We're optimistic that momentum will spring us into April,” said Bill Fay, who manages the Toyota division in the U.S.

Industry sales rose 6 percent to 1.5 million vehicles, far outpacing analysts' expectations. The sales pace was the fastest since November, according to Autodata Corp.

March sales helped rescue what was otherwise a disappointing first quarter. Analysts had predicted flat growth for the first three months of this year after harsh weather in January and February hurt sales. But March helped pull first quarter sales up 1.4 percent.

The month saw some big gainers. Chrysler's sales rose 13 percent on demand for Ram pickups and the new Jeep Cherokee SUV. Subaru's sales were up 21 percent; its new Forester SUV jumped 53 percent to nearly 14,000.

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