U.S. light-vehicle sales continued on an upward path in March, even though the seasonally adjusted annual rate fell slightly from the prior month.

March deliveries finished at 1.400 million units, equal to a 14.4 million SAAR. That was down from February’s 15.0 million rate, but still the second highest for any month since 14.5 million in April 2008.

Small and midsize cars spearheaded gains, as LV volume over the month’s 28 selling days averaged 50,004 units, 8.7% above March 2011’s 46,010 (27 selling days). It was the 19thconsecutive month sales finished ahead of the same year-ago period.

Deliveries in the year’s first quarter totaled 3.46 million units, 13.4% above January-March 2011. The period’s 14.5 million SAAR marked the best for any quarter since 15.2 million in first-quarter 2008.

March sales of midsize cars increased 18.5% from a year ago and small-car deliveries rose 10.7%. Together they accounted for 22.2% of the market, compared with prior year’s 21.0%.

Total car sales jumped 12.2% from March 2011 levels, boosting their LV share to 53.4%, the highest for any month since a Cash-for-Clunkers-induced 56.8% in August 2009.

Chrysler led the major players again, with total sales up 29.3% from year-ago. Its first-quarter 2012 deliveries soared 38.5%.

General Motors, the industry volume leader, recorded a 7.8% gain, while Ford sales were up a tepid 1.3%.

Toyota, the third-biggest player, posted an 11.2% rise, and Nissan deliveries increased 8.5%.

Honda bucked the trend among the major auto makers with an 8.4% decline from year-ago, joining Mitsubishi and Porsche as the only manufacturers to suffer drops in the month.

Honda’s share dropped to 9.1% in March from 9.6% in February and 10.8% a year ago. Its first-quarter share of 9.3% was its lowest for the period since 2007.

By vehicle type, Honda’s car sales declined 19.9%, as each of its cars recorded a double-digit shortfall. Trucks increased 9.5% thanks to a 35.2% upward surge of its CR-V midsize cross/utility vehicle. Excluding CR-V, Honda’s truck deliveries dropped 2.1% from last year.

Porsche recorded an 8.3% decline, including a 27.9% drop in cars. However, the company is somewhat in transition as it readies redesigned versions of its 911 and Boxster cars later this year. Sales of its Cayenne luxury CUV increased 15.4%

Mitsubishi’s sales were down 8.7% despite healthy gains by the Galant midsize sedan and the Outlander Sport small CUV.

hstoddard@wardsauto.com