February's Auto Sales Put Carmakers in the Fast Lane

Shopping for a new car at a dealer
Shopping for a new car at a dealer

February was a good month for auto sales despite inclement weather across much of the country and surging oil prices that led to soaring prices at the nation's gas pumps. Automakers, including General Motors (GM), Ford Motor (F) and others reported double-digit percentage increases in sales last month as consumers continued to warm to the slowly brightening economy.

Industry sales exceeded analyst expectations and could come close -- if not exceed -- a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 13 million vehicles for the month. That would make February the best on record since the federal government's "cash for clunkers" rebate program in 2009, says Jesse Toprak, senior analyst at TrueCar.,com, an online auto pricing guide.

The No. 1 factor affecting sales was the U.S. economy, with "consumers feeling better and more confident about making [purchases of] big-ticket items," Toprak says. Calling February's results considerably better than expected but not "shocking," he says sales were also aided by increased availability of credit.

Consumers who may have been denied a car loan six months ago are now finding they can get financing, Toprak says.

Across-the-Board Increases

GM was the first to report February data Tuesday, saying its sales jumped 46% last month, as the Detroit-based automaker sought to make inroads in competitive markets on the East Coast, where imports dominate, by increasing the amount it spends on advertising and incentives.

Those programs helped the nation's largest automaker sell more than 207,000 vehicles during the month, more than analyst estimates and even GM's own expectations. Moreover, the surge in demand was felt across the board, from small passenger cars to midsize utility vehicles to large pickup trucks.

Despite concerns that GM may ignite a price war by boosting availability of cheap financing and attractive lease rates, the company's chief sales officer, Don Johnson, said the automaker is being measured in its efforts. "Our disciplined approach to incentives has not changed," Johnson said during a conference call with investors and the media, following release of the sales results.

Retail Sales Strength

Rival Ford reported its sales rose 14% for the month. The Dearborn, Mich.-based company, which overtook embattled Toyota Motor (TM) last year to become the U.S.'s No. 2 automaker, said sales of Fusion family sedans, F-Series pickup trucks and Explorer SUVs helped push sales at Ford to more than 156,600 units in the month.

As with GM, Ford said the boost was attributable to strong retail demand -- sales to individual consumers. So far this year, the automaker said, retail sales have risen 25%.

Chrysler Group, the smallest of the Detroit Three, said its sales rose 13% above last year's levels to 95,102. The company, run by Italy's Fiat, credited strong sales for trucks and utility vehicles for the jump.

As with Ford and GM, Chrysler saw an increase in consumer demand. "Our retail sales were up substantially in February, said Fred Diaz, the Auburn Hill, Mich.-based company's lead executive for U.S. sales.

Diaz attributed the increase to Chrysler's revamped vehicle lineup. The automaker overhauled 16 models, some of which only recently began appearing on dealers' lots. February marked the 11th consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains for Chrysler, which along with GM benefited from a government bailout.

Rebounding at Toyota

Recall-saddled Toyota said its U.S. sales rose 42% overall in February compared to a year ago. The world's largest automaker sold nearly 142,000 vehicles, as sales of popular Corolla, Camry and Prius models surged by as much as 70%.

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Within its namesake Toyota division sales climbed 48.5% above levels from February 2010, when Toyota was facing congressional scrutiny into recalls of millions of cars for sudden unintended acceleration. The company recalled 2.2 million more vehicles last month for the same problem.

"After two months of improving sales, we feel good about the way 2011 has started," said Bob Carter, general manager at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., in a written statement. Carter said the automaker's a recently introduced ad campaign, which seeks to remind consumers of the reasons for Toyota's popularity in the U.S., helped increase traffic in dealer showrooms and boost sales of cars and light trucks.

While sales of Toyota brand vehicles rose in February, those at the company's luxury Lexus unit stalled. With slightly more than 13,800 units sold last month, Lexus sales trailed those of either GM's upscale Cadillac or Buick divisions, both of which sold about 15,800 cars.

Looking to "Outsmart the Bad Weather"

Honda Motor (HMC), which ranks as one most fuel-efficient makes in the country, reported its sales rose nearly 22% to 87,623 units compared to a year ago. The company credited a surge in demand for sports-utility vehicles for the rise.

"Honda models available with four-wheel drive like the CR-V and Pilot saw sales increase significantly in February as people looked for ways to outsmart the bad weather," said John Mendel, executive vice president of sales for the company's U.S. division, in a statement.

Sales of the CR-V rose 61.4%, while Pilot sales rose 23.3%. Sales of smaller passenger cars, however, were also higher, with demand for compact Fit and Civic models rising about 44% and 16%, respectively. Sales of the redesigned Odyssey minivan lifted 17%, the carmaker said. Honda's Acura luxury-car unit sold about 10,800 cars in February, enough to score a nearly 21% increase in sales.

Keeping Record-Setting String Alive

Fellow Japanese automaker Nissan Motors (NSANY) said its U.S. sales set a record in February, totaling 92,370 units versus 70,189 units a year earlier, an increase of 31.6%.

The company credited some of the gain to strong demand for its Rogue compact SUV, which sold more than 11,400 units during the month, an 86% increase above year-ago levels. But other models, including the Sentra compact, Altima family sedan and Pathfinder SUV also aided in increasing showroom traffic.

South Korean automakers Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors continued their string of setting monthly sales records. Hyundai said total sales rose 28% for the month, with models such as Sonata, Tucson and Elantra leading the way. In total, the automaker sold 43,533 units, a new February record. Kia recorded a 36% sales increase, selling 33,806 cars and light trucks in the month, also a February record.

Among niche players in the U.S. market, Japanese automaker Subaru said its sales rose nearly 20% to about 21,700 vehicles, while those at Mazda Motor climbed 13.7%, compared to last year, totaling 19,387 units. German automakers Mercedes-Benz and Porsche also reported gains in sales during February.