Global auto makers sold nearly 7.6 million total vehicles in March, up 40.1% from year-ago, bringing sales for the year’s first quarter to 18.5 million and marking a 26.4% gain on like-2009.

Growth was fueled by continued expansion throughout the Asia/Pacific region, which finished the quarter 50.6% ahead of year-ago. With March sales topping 1.7 million vehicles – the largest volume in the market to date – China strengthened its position as the world’s largest market.

Related document: World Vehicle Sales Summary

Government incentives that fueled China’s explosive expansion last year have been tapered back, but large incentives remain in place on small vehicles. China’s 4.6 million first-quarter vehicle sales represented a whopping 71.8% year-over-year increase and accounted for nearly one of every four vehicles sold in 2010.

Japan sold 674,494 total vehicles in March, for a 47.2% gain on February and 23.5% ahead of year-ago. First-quarter sales neared 1.5 million for a 22.1% increase over like-2009.

Monthly results in Europe were buoyed by the U.K., where the majority of vehicles are registered in the third month of each quarter. The anomaly made the U.K. the fifth-largest vehicle market in the world in March, though it sits at the 10th position for the entire quarter.

Sales continued to lag year-ago in Germany, where the first quarter ended with a 21.4% decline from like-2009.

In North America, March U.S. sales jumped 36.6% from February, as auto makers entered into an incentive war instigated by Toyota Motor Corp.’s efforts to recoup market share lost during a recent spate of recalls.

Combined with smaller upticks in Canada and Mexico, U.S. March deliveries lifted North American overall first-quarter results to 3.1 million units, for an 18.7% gain on prior-year.

However, the region’s global market share dropped to 16.8% in the year’s first three months, compared with 18.7% in like-2009.

The Ward’s monthly global-sales report relies on data from markets accounting for more than 92% of world vehicle sales, plus estimates based on trends and historical data from other markets.

Ward’s estimates world light-vehicle sales in March, excluding medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses, rose to nearly 6.9 million units for a 40.7% gain on February and 23.8% ahead of year-ago. Light-vehicle sales for the first quarter grew to 16.9 million units, a 23.8% improvement on like-2009.