U.S. auto sales accelerated to the fastest pace in four years, led by Chrysler Group LLC and a surprise gain from General Motors Co., as demand strengthened throughout automakers’ lineups.
GM deliveries rose 1.1 percent to 209,306 cars and light trucks, beating analysts’ estimates for a 4.8 percent decrease. Chrysler sales increased 40 percent to 133,521 and Ford Motor Co.’s climbed 14 percent to 178,644. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. deliveries each gained 12 percent, while Nissan Motor Co. sales rose 16 percent.
Light-vehicle sales in February accelerated to a 15.1 million seasonally adjusted annual rate, exceeding the 14.2 million pace that was the average of 17 analysts’ estimates. The results were the best since February 2008 when U.S. sales ran at a 15.5 million rate, according to Autodata Corp.
“Everyone’s kind of blowing us out of the water,” Alec Gutierrez, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said yesterday in a phone interview. “For fuel-efficient vehicles, we expected to see demand as gasoline prices really surged through the month, but the big surprise is on the truck front. It speaks to the broad-based nature of this recovery.”
The average estimate of 10 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg was for a 26 percent gain for Chrysler and 9.4 increase for Ford. The average of seven estimates was for an 8.2 percent increase for Toyota, 4.5 percent gain for Honda and 6.1 percent rise for Nissan. U.S. auto sales ran at a 13.3 million pace in February 2011, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based researcher Autodata.
Consumers gained confidence in February as the Dow Jones Industrial Average exceeded 13,000 for the first time since May 2008 and the unemployment rate fell to the lowest in three years. The improving economy may have blunted the impact of rising gasoline prices. The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded increased 14 percent through the first two months of the year to $3.74, according to AAA, the nation’s largest motoring group.
“It seems we’ve all underestimated the strength in the retail numbers,” Jesse Toprak, an analyst for the auto-pricing website TrueCar.com, said yesterday in a phone interview. “There’s pent-up demand being met even for larger vehicles because consumers are feeling more comfortable.”
Ford plans to increase second-quarter production in North America by 2.8 percent to 730,000 cars and trucks, the Dearborn, Michigan-based company said in a statement. The company’s forecast exceeds IHS Automotive’s estimate that Ford would cut output to 686,000 vehicles.
Chrysler’s car sales more than doubled to 40,024 from 17,745 a year earlier. Deliveries of the 200 more than quadrupled to 9,717, and 300 sedan sales climbed to 7,670, almost six times more than a year earlier, Auburn Hills, Michigan-based Chrysler said in a statement.
Total industry sales rose 16 percent to 1.15 million cars and light trucks, according to Autodata. The results included a 24 percent increase for car deliveries and a 7.6 percent gain for light trucks.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve sold more than 1 million cars in the month of February,” Maryann Keller, principal of a self-named consulting firm in Stamford, Connecticut, said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Radio. “It’s been a function of a very warm winter. It’s also helped that lenders are now competing for the business.”
GM increased sales of the Chevrolet Equinox small sport-utility vehicle by 16 percent to 17,851, according to a statement. The Detroit-based automaker’s deliveries of Cruze compacts gained 10 percent to 20,427.
GM lowered incentive spending by 4.2 percent from a year earlier to $2,895 per vehicle, according to an e-mailed statement that cited data from Westlake Village, California-based J.D. Power & Associates.
“Given that incentive spend is responsible and we still had a pretty solid year-over-year increase, the industry looks quite healthy,” David Whiston, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, said yesterday in a phone interview.
GM shares rose 1.7 percent to $26.47 at the close in New York. They have gained 31 percent so far this year. Ford gained 2.3 percent to $12.66.
Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp., the affiliates that operate separately, combined to increase sales 26 percent from a year earlier. The Seoul-based companies beat the average of five analysts’ estimates for a 19 percent gain.
Volkswagen AG, which is targeting U.S. sales growth of more than 10 percent this year, said combined deliveries of its namesake and Audi-branded vehicles rose 34 percent to 39,108. The average estimate of three analysts was for a 33 percent gain.
Japan’s tsunami limited Toyota and Honda’s production and depleted their inventories for almost half of 2011. With supplies rebounding, the industry sales rate has exceeded 14 million in consecutive months for the first time since May 2008.
Toyota delivered 20,593 Prius hybrids in February, a 52 percent increase from a year earlier. The Toyota City, Japan-based automaker also boosted sales of Camry, its top-selling model, by 27 percent to 34,543.
Honda’s Civic deliveries climbed 42 percent to 27,087. The Tokyo-based automaker followed a monthly sales increase for January that was its first since the Tokyo-based automaker’s inventory plunged following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in March.
“February felt great,” Al Castignetti, vice president of U.S. sales for Yokohama, Japan-based Nissan, said yesterday in a phone interview. “Consumer demand is coming back, and I think it’s coming back fairly aggressively.”