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Apr 1, 8:44 AM EDT

US auto sales likely to be flat in March, but outlook strong

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DETROIT (AP) -- U.S. auto sales were expected to slow a bit in March, but analysts remain optimistic about the market.

March sales were expected to be flat compared with last March. Car buying site predicted total U.S. sales of 1.5 million vehicles in March, down less than 1 percent from a year ago.

FCA - the parent of Chrysler and Fiat - said Wednesday that its U.S. sales rose 2 percent in March. But sales of its top seller, the Ram pickup, dropped 2 percent. Other automakers were scheduled to report sales later Wednesday.

March won't see the kind of big increases the industry is used to. U.S. auto sales were up 14 percent in January, for example, and 5 percent in February.

But there were several contributing factors. Last March saw a surge in sales after an unusually cold February; by contrast, this March still had lingering snow in much of the country. This March also had one less weekend than last March.

Analysts said sales remain on track to reach 17 million this year, their best performance since 2005. Low interest rates, low gas prices, the improving economy and hot new vehicles like the Subaru Outback and the Jeep Cherokee are all drawing buyers to dealerships.

FCA sold 197,261 vehicles last month. It was the company's best March since 2007.

Jeep sales jumped 23 percent thanks to brisk sales of the Cherokee, Grand Cherokee and Patriot SUVs. Chrysler brand sales were also up as sales of its 200 sedan more than doubled.

But Ram pickup sales fell 2 percent from particularly strong sales last March.

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