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February U.S. auto sales highest since '09

U.S. auto sales rose more than 20 percent in February, exceeding the most bullish forecasts as the lure of discounts from automakers led by General Motors outweighed concerns about higher oil prices for car shoppers.

The gain put the industry on track for its highest sales rate since August 2009, when the government's Cash for Clunkers credits spurred a short-lived boom.

"The consumer is back to the showrooms," said Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Capital.

GM led with a 46 percent sales gain, stoked by incentives that also led the industry at an estimated $3,700 in spending per vehicle on average in February. The automaker said its deliveries for February increased to 207,028 vehicles.

Toyota sales rose 42 percent to 141,846, while deliveries at Ford climbed 10 percent and Chrysler gained 13 percent.

Light-vehicle sales ran at a seasonally adjusted 13.4 million annual rate, said Autodata Corp. in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., the fastest since the 14.2 million rate during the Cash for Clunkers program in August 2009.

The percentage of consumers planning to buy a new vehicle within six months increased to 4.6 percent from 3.1 percent at the end of last year, the Manhattan-based Conference Board said last week.

Toyota Motor Corp., which was bouncing back from depressed sales a year earlier, posted a 42 percent sales gain for February, its largest in at least 11 years, according to a spokeswoman. Nissan Motor Co. had a 32 percent increase after offering more aggressive discounts of its own. Honda said its U.S. sales in February rose 22 percent.

In previous recessions, auto sales generally tracked housing activity, with the two rising and falling together. But now autos are leaving housing in the dust.

"Housing is down and showing no signs of coming back," said George Hoffer, a business professor at the University of Richmond who follows the industry. "In reality, the auto industry in recent years has moved to its own drumbeat."

- Combined news services

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