Auto Sales Rise Points to Fastest Pace Since Clunkers' End

U.S. auto sales in September accelerated to the fastest pace since the federal government’s “cash for clunkers” incentive program last year as deliveries by the top 14 automakers all rose.

U.S. auto sales in September rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 11.8 million, compared with 9.4 million a year earlier, according to researcher Autodata Corp., based in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. In August 2009, the pace was 14.2 million, aided by the federal subsidy for fuel-efficient models.

The month’s stronger sales, bolstered by Ford Motor Co.’s 41 percent gain, are a sign that the car market and the broader economy may have bottomed out and that a slow, stable recovery is under way, said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for Santa Monica, California-based TrueCar.com.

“It’s slightly better than expected, but it’s still a stable and painful growth process,” Toprak said in an interview. “This is another step in a healthy but rather slow recovery. This month, there were no outside forces at play, like government programs or crazy incentives, just the marketplace trying to recover on its own.”

Deliveries at General Motors Co., the largest U.S. automaker, climbed 11 percent from a year earlier to 173,155, the Detroit-based company said today in a statement. Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford, the second-largest, reported 160,873 sales, including more than doubling of deliveries of the Edge sport- utility vehicle and Transit Connect van.

‘Clunkers’ Ends

Industrywide deliveries in September were expected to reach an 11.7 million rate, the average of nine analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Deliveries in all 2009 were 10.4 million, the lowest since 1982.

The stronger month doesn’t indicate renewed acceleration in economic growth, just that the economy has avoided a double-dip recession, said John Canally, an economist and investment strategist at Boston-based LPL Financial Corp., which oversees $276.9 billion in assets.

“We probably have put a floor under vehicle sales, but the sparks you need to reaccelerate aren’t quite there yet,” Canally said in an interview. “You don’t have robust job growth or robust income growth. Your traditional catalysts for strong consumer spending just aren’t in place yet.”

GM’s deliveries trailed three analysts’ average estimate for a 13 percent gain. Chevrolet brand sales rose 18 percent to 121,479, helped by the Silverado pickup and Equinox SUV. Buick deliveries gained 36 percent to 12,875, aided by the LaCrosse sedan. GMC increased 42 percent to 25,995, and Cadillac rose 11 percent to 12,620.

‘Willing to Spend’

“Consumers are willing to spend, albeit cautiously,” Don Johnson, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales, said today on a conference call with analysts.

GM’s sales of the Hummer, Pontiac and Saturn brands, which were closed, and the Saab brand that it sold, fell to 186 vehicles from 14,982 vehicles in September 2009. GM’s four remaining U.S. brands -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick -- rose a combined 22 percent in September.

Ford’s results topped six analysts’ average estimate for a 40 percent gain. The company’s namesake brand deliveries increased 49 percent to 147,057 vehicles, while Lincoln gained 26 percent to 7,510 and the Mercury line, which is being discontinued, rose 16 percent to 6,306.

Excluding the Volvo line, which Ford sold to China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., sales rose 46 percent. Volvo was the largest automaker to report a sales decline, as deliveries dropped 12 percent to 4,152.

Ford rose 2 cents to $12.26 at 4:15 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, reversing a drop of as much as 1 percent. The shares have gained 23 percent this year.

Chrysler Sales

Chrysler Group LLC sales increased 61 percent to 100,077, the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based company said in a statement. That topped the 48 percent average estimate of six analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

Deliveries of its namesake brand rose 92 percent to 17,348, helped by the Town & Country minivan and Sebring sedan. The Dodge brand increased 71 percent to 36,272, Jeep rose 65 percent to 28,603, and Ram gained 22 percent to 17,854.

“Chrysler is benefiting from stable gas prices and the highly visible launch of the redesigned Grand Cherokee,” Ivan Drury, an analyst for Santa Monica, California-based Edmunds.com, said in an e-mailed statement today. “As long as consumers are not worried about high fuel costs Chrysler should be able to maintain a decent sales pace, since 71 percent of Chrysler sales are trucks.”

Consumer Confidence

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan final index of consumer sentiment fell to 68.2 last month from 68.9 in August. The drop was smaller than analysts estimated, evidence that the largest part of the economy may be stabilizing.

The gauge, released today, was projected to decline to 67, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of economists, and compares with a preliminary reading of 66.6 issued last month.

“We believe the economic recovery in the second half will be slower than the first half,” GM’s Johnson said. “We do expect modest employment growth.”

Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s largest automaker, sold 147,162 Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles in September, 17 percent more than a year ago, the company said in an e-mailed statement. The automaker’s deliveries were expected to gain 21 percent, the average estimate of four analysts.

Honda Sales

Honda Motor Co., the second-largest Japanese carmaker, sold 97,361 Honda and Acura vehicles last month, up 26 percent from a year ago, the company said in an e-mailed statement. The average of four analysts’ estimates was for 32 percent increase.

Nissan Motor Co., Japan’s third-largest automaker, sold 74,205 Nissan and Infiniti vehicles last month, up 34 percent from a year earlier, Al Castignetti, vice president of U.S. sales, said in an interview. Car deliveries expanded 36 percent, led by a 65 percent jump for Altima sedans, he said.

“This year has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride,” Castignetti said. Sales should keep improving for the rest of 2010, particularly as light-truck demand remains strong, he said.

Nissan was expected to boost sales 30 percent, the average estimate of four analysts.

Hyundai Motor Co., South Korea’s largest automaker, boosted sales 48 percent to 46,556 last month, led by increased deliveries of Sonata sedans and Tucson sport-utility vehicle. Retail sales to individual drivers, excluding those to rental companies and business fleets, surged 73 percent, Hyundai’s U.S. unit said.

Other Gainers

Volkswagen AG, Europe’s largest automaker, sold 28,249 Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley and Lamborghini vehicles, up 14 percent, according to Autodata.

Other automakers posting increases included Hyundai affiliate Kia Motors Corp., 39 percent; Subaru, the auto brand of Toyota-affiliated Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., 47 percent; and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., 5.3 percent, the researcher said.

BMW AG and Daimler AG, Germany’s top luxury-car makers, posted 21 percent sales increases, according to Autodata.

To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Trudell in New York at ctrudell1@bloomberg.net; David Welch in Southfield, Michigan, at Dwelch12@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kevin Orland at korland@bloomberg.net.

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