Sandy boosts demand for new vehicles

DETROIT - Superstorm Sandy gave an extra boost to already strong U.S. auto sales last month.

Most major companies, from Toyota to Chrysler, posted impressive increases from a year earlier. Only General Motors was left struggling to explain its 3 percent sales gain and large inventory of unsold trucks.

Americans were already willing to buy a new car or truck last month because they're more confident in the economy. Home values are rising, hiring is up and auto financing is readily available. Also, the average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is approaching a record 11 years, so many people are looking to replace older cars.

Sandy just boosted that demand. The storm added 20,000 to 30,000 sales industrywide in November, mostly from people who planned to buy cars during the October storm but had to delay their purchases, Ford estimated. People who need to replace storm-damaged vehicles are expected to drive sales for several more months. GM estimates 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles will eventually need to be replaced.

November sales, when calculated on an annual basis, are likely to be 15 million or more, the highest rate since March 2008, according to LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area consulting firm.

GM's biggest brand, Chevrolet, reported flat sales over last year despite new products like the Spark minicar. GM's sales have trailed the industry all year. They were up 4 percent through October, compared to the industrywide increase of 14 percent.

Some analysts think GM will be forced to offer more deals in December to clear out higher-than-forecast inventory.

Asian brands got a boost from some unusually big discounts, said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for automotive pricing site TrueCar.com. TrueCar estimated Hyundai and Kia, which were admonished by the U.S. government in late October for overstating gas mileage, increased incentive spending by nearly 30 percent. Nissan spending was up 45 percent to $4,273 per vehicle, by far the highest incentives in the industry.

Toyota said its 17 percent sales increase was partly due to post-Sandy demand. Honda was up 39 percent thanks to strong sales of the new Accord sedan and clearance deals on the outgoing Civic.

Luxury cars saw their usual year-end surge as holiday commercials started crowding the airwaves. Porsche's sales rose 71 percent to 3,865, a record month for the automaker. Infiniti, Acura, BMW and Lexus all reported big gains.

Other automakers reporting: Chrysler, up 14 percent; Hyundai, up 8 percent; Volkswagen, up 29 percent; and Nissan, up 13 percent.

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