World vehicle sales rose just 3.6% in March compared with year-ago, as growth was slowed by the devastating natural disasters in Japan and a leveling of demand in the world’s largest market.

Deliveries in Japan plunged 35.1% from like-2010, with the market grinding to a near-halt in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the island nation March 11.

The disasters wreaked havoc on automotive production and crippled some supplier operations there, triggering parts shortages that impacted vehicle assembly operations around the world. However, there was no immediate effect on sales in other large markets in March.

Deliveries in China rose 5.1% over like-2010, leaving the biggest vehicle market’s year-to-date tally up 6.2%, with nearly 5 million units sold in the first-quarter.

Japan’s sudden downturn and China’s slowing market expansion left vehicle sales in Asia/Pacific down 0.6%, its first year-over-year decline in two years. The region accounted for 41.2% of world new-vehicle sales in March.

Related document: World Vehicle Sales Summary

North America controlled a 19.3% share of global volume, leading all regions in year-over-year growth with a 15.6% increase in March sales. That was fueled by a 17% spike in the U.S., where OEM incentives continued to drive the market.

Sales in the U.K., Germany and France, Europe’s top three markets in March, rose modestly. Demand in the region’s No.4 market, Russia, jumped 73.3% on roughly 235,000 units. Sales across the entire region were up 2.2% and accounted for 28.6% of volume worldwide.

In sixth-ranked Brazil, sales fell 12.2%, driving South America down 3.6%, despite growth in smaller markets such as Argentina (up 29%) and Chile (49.5%).

Auto makers delivered 19.9 million vehicles in first-quarter 2011, a 7.5% increase over year-ago. However, sales growth is likely to decline in the spring and summer months as global production shortfalls, related to the disasters in Japan, reduce vehicle inventory worldwide.

jsousanis@wardsauto.com