AUTO SALES growth picked up in March from a nearly flat increment in February — after 12 consecutive months of decline blamed on higher excise tax rates that took effect in January 2018 — although this was not enough to pull the first quarter out of contraction, according to data released on Monday by the Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines, Inc. (CAMPI) and the Truck Manufacturers Association.

The latest data showed March sales totaled 32,173 vehicles, up from the year-ago 28,216 units and 22.2% increase from February 2019’s 26,327 units.

Still, first-quarter auto sales dipped 0.8% to 85,388 vehicles from 86,037 units sold in the year-ago three-month period.

Passenger car sales totaled 9,214 vehicles last month, down 15.7% from the 10,925 units in March last year.

Commercial vehicle sales, which accounted for 71.36% of total sales last month, went up 32.8% to 22,959 vehicles in March from 17,291 units a year ago.

Sales of Asian utility vehicles, a segment under commercial vehicles, totaled 2,753 vehicles, down 29.4% from 3,899 units.

Light commercial vehicle sales rose 54.4% to 18,793 vehicles from 12,171 units.

The first three months saw passenger car sales down 9.5% to 26,172 vechicles from 28,907 units a year ago, while commercial vehicle sales rose 3.7% to 59,216 vehicles from 57,130 units.

The auto industry had said it expected 10% growth this year, coming off from 2018 when local auto sales slid 16% to 357,410 units — marking its first drop in seven years — as new auto excise taxes and the surge in inflation to up to a nine-year high dampened consumer appetite for auto purchases.

In an e-mail to reporters on Monday, CAMPI President Rommel R. Gutierrez said the double-digit annual increase in March shows “a strong indication that the automotive industry is well on its way to recovery.” “We are optimistic that this trend will be sustained in the coming months,” Mr. Gutierrez added.

Year-to-date, Toyota Motors Philippines Corp. continued to bag the top spot with a 39.3% market share at 33,554 vehicles sold, down 2.6%; followed by Mitsubishi Motors Philippines Corp. with 18.90% 16,140 units sold, down 17.5%. Rounding out the top five were Nissan Philippines, Inc. (accounting for 13.16% at 11,239 units, up 94.3%); Honda Cars Philippines; Inc. (7.5% at 6,403 vehicles, up 3.6%) and Ford Motor Company Phils, Inc. (6.51% at 5,560 units, down 13.8%). — Janina C. Lim