New car sales rose in March as demand for commercial vehicles underpinned a recovery from February's decline when several cargo ships were turned away at the border on biosecurity grounds.

New motor vehicle registrations rose 1 per cent to 14,028 last month from the same period a year earlier, taking year-to-date sales to 40,346, some 7 per cent higher than the first three months of 2017, Motor Industry Association figures show.

Those gains were driven by a 7 per cent increase in sales of commercial vehicles to 4,978, offsetting a 2 per cent decline in passenger car sales to 9,050.

"The market for new vehicles is mature and remains strong," MIA chief executive David Crawford said in a statement. "The economic factors of the past two years are still largely present with strong net immigration, affordable prices and a strong economy."


New car sales have been breaking new records in recent years as an expanding population and robust tourism stoke demand for vehicles, while a strong currency makes imports cheaper and low interest rates keep finance costs low.

Sales stalled last month when the Ministry for Primary Industries turned away four bulk carriers from Japan carrying 10,000-to-12,000 new and used vehicles after the brown marmorated stink bug was discovered on board, raising fears the pest could hit the local primary sector. MPI has introduced new screening measures for all used vehicles prior to export.

The MIA figures show Toyota remains the market leader, with 17 per cent of sales with 2,421 vehicles in March, followed by Ford at 11 per cent, or 1,551, Mitsubishi at 8 per cent with 1,104 sales, and Holden at 8 per cent with 1,100 new sales.

Last month, Toyota New Zealand changed the way it sells vehicles, ditching haggling typical at dealerships with a non-negotiable driveaway price. The move meant Toyota stores no longer carry their own stock, with cars sourced from one of three hubs across the country, although the carmaker will still use the dealer network.