A strong finish to U.S. sales toward the end of March helped propel Ford deliveries up 7.0% in the month and slingshot some of its most popular models to record results, leading the automaker to expect additional strength for the industry in the year’s second quarter.

Ford sold 238,672 vehicles last month, compared with 231,576 in like-2013, according to WardsAuto data. The industry saw one fewer selling day last month compared with March 2013.

The automaker’s performance came against an industry that likely posted a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.5 million, including medium- and heavy-duty models, for the best pace so far this year.

“That does bode well for the second quarter,” says John Felice, vice president-U.S. marketing, sales and service at Ford.

January and February saw SAARs of 15.5 million and 15.6 million, respectively, pinned down mostly by severe weather in much of the nation.

Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, the automaker’s chief economist, says improving economic indicators served as a backdrop to March industry sales, including stable, clearly defined monetary and fiscal policy at the federal level; subdued inflation; improving wage and household income; and steady consumer confidence.

“The economy is entering the second quarter on an improved trend,” she says in a conference call today with journalists and Wall Street analysts.

Ford reaffirmed its projection for the industry to sell 16 million-17 million units this year, including medium- and heavy-duty models.

Ford posted gains across the board, netting a 6.5% improvement in car sales to 86,791 units and a 7.3% rise in light-truck deliveries to 151,891.

The Ford Fusion midsize car enjoyed its best month ever, as surging demand in Southern California helped push deliveries up 13.0% to 32,963. The Ford F-150 pickup accounted for 66,205 sales, up 8.4%. The Lincoln MKZ large sedan witnessed its best month on record, as sales rose 78.3% to 4,052.

However, small-car sales sputtered somewhat, as deliveries of the Fiesta B-car gained 1.8% to 6,592 and popularity of the Focus C-car was flat at 23,974.

Ford fleet sales were flat with year-ago at 32% of overall deliveries, although the automaker says it did witness greater demand than in the previous two months of the year due to improving weather conditions.

Ford inventories closed the month at 680,000 vehicles, or roughly 72 days’ supply and down from 91 days’ in like-2013.

jamend@wardsauto.com