SAO PAULO — Despite a 2.4% drop in the Brazilian economy in March, the auto industry reports an increase of 25% over February sales. Wholesale sales (from manufacturers to dealers) totaled 156,300 units for cars, pickups and light vans, up 25% over the prior month and up 40% over March 2000. Sales totaled 398,000 in the first quarter, up 30% over the same period last year.

Volkswagen AG resumed the top place in sales rankings at the wholesale level, following four months in second place behind Fiat SpA. VW sold 47,500 units to dealers, compared to 39,200 by Fiat in March. VW sales jumped 40% over February, while Fiat sales rose 15%. General Motor Corp.'s sales climbed 25% over February, totaling 35,780 units. Ford Motor Co. recorded an increase of 10%, delivering 11,200 units to dealers. Renault SA, Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Toyota Motor Corp., Mercedes-Benz and importers delivered a total of 16,000 units to their respective dealers, says the Brazil automaker's group, Anfavea.

GM, VW and Ford all held car fairs in the major cities, which helped sales considerably, offering discounts of up to 12%. Average loan rates of 0.99% per month were offered, compared with 5% for most consumer goods and personal rotating credit at 8% to 9% per month. The GM fair sold 1,500 units in four days. Dealers are increasing car prices this month due to a 10% hike in the value of the dollar, which was at US$1.95 to the Brazilian real on Jan. 1 and US$2.15 in early April.