Lithia Motors projected a solid 40-cent per share return in the first quarter a few weeks back, reflecting the auto industry's steady recovery.

Lithia Motors projected a solid 40-cent per share return in the first quarter a few weeks back, reflecting the auto industry's steady recovery.

That was before an unexpected surge through many of the Medford auto retailer's 83 stores swept Lithia to a record March.

Lithia Motors reported a 92 percent gain today, posting a first-quarter profit of $15.8 million. The company earned 60 cents per share compared to 33 cents a year ago when it netted $8.8 million. First-quarter revenue of $758.9 million was up $176 million — a 30 percent gain — from $582.9 million in the first quarter of 2011.

“Our January results were lighter than expected, but we started pacing ahead in February,” said Chris Holzshu, senior vice president and chief financial officer during a conference call with analysts this morning. “Then we had the best month we've had since 2005 as a company.”

Lithia broke records not just for sales volume, but in a variety of financial measures.

Same store new vehicle sales increased 25 percent, and used vehicle sales grew 18 percent.
Lithia will benefit from growing new vehicle sales across the industry to between 14 million 14.5 million units this year.

Access to credit, improved safety, fuel-efficiency, new technology and styling are driving consumer demand, "coupled with an aging fleet on the road,” Sid DeBoer, executive chairman said.

Updated Lithia also announced it will raise its dividend to 10 cents from 7 cents for shareholders of record on May 11. The company’s shares shot up to $26.89 early today from $25 at close on Tuesday. At 10:30 a.m. PDT, shares were trading at $26.76


— Greg Stiles