Ward's Communications is forecasting strong growth in light vehicle sales as major manufacturers beef up sale programs for the consumer market in the face of positive economic news.

Ward's forecast pegs sales of pickups, SUVs and minivans to reach a 16.56 million for the year, closely matching February's estimate of 16.63 million. Sales for March are estimated to top 1.53 million units, translating to a daily selling rate 1% below March of last year.

Ward's said the light vehicle market's show of strength means first-quarter 2002 will end with an annual sales forecast of 16.36 million, the third best start for any year on record. Ward's added that vehicle inventories will drop 1.8% by the end of March, helping to explain why production schedules for second-quarter North American production are set 2.2% ahead of last year.