General Motors reported a seven percent gain in U.S. auto sales in February, beating several analyst estimates on the strength of its crossover models and pickup trucks, while U.S. rival Ford Motor posted a slightly weaker-than-expected nine percent gain.
GM sold 224,314 cars and trucks last month, up 7.2 percent and well above expectations for a 4.2 percent gain. Sales of its Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks jumped nearly 30 percent, while its Chevrolet Equinox mid-size crossover rose 16 percent.
The largest U.S. automaker also predicted that the overall auto industry's sales rate this month would be 15.5 million, better than the 15.1 million sales rate expected by economists polled by Thomson Reuters.
Ford said its U.S. auto sales rose to 195,822 cars and trucks in February, a 9.3 percent gain that fell short of consensus estimates for a 15.6 percent gain. Still, it was Ford's best February in about six years.
The No. 2 U.S. automaker reported a 21 percent gain in sales of its crossover and sport-utility vehicles while its F-Series trucks saw a 15.3 percent gain.
But Ford's car sales rose 6.4 percent, hurt by a 11 percent drop in the Focus compact car and a 9 percent drop in the Fiesta subcompact. Trucks overall, including the E-Series and heavy trucks, rose 3.6 percent during the month.
Chrysler Group, the third-largest U.S. automaker, said its U.S. sales rose 4.1 percent to 139,015 in February, below what most analysts expected. Volkswagen's U.S. unit posted a 2.9 percent increase to 31,456 vehicle sales.
Auto sales each month are an early indicator of the consumer spending. Industry sales in February are expected to show a fourth straight month of seasonally adjusted annualized sales above 15 million vehicles, for the first time since early 2008, a sign of a sustained recovery after the recession.
Chrysler estimated the month will finish at 15.5 million, including medium and heavy trucks, which typically add 300,000 vehicles to the monthly sales rate.
Meanwhile, Toyota — one of Ford and GM's chief competitors in Asia — lagged its American counterparts with sales that rose by 4.3 percent. That was weaker than analyst estimates.
Inventory 'Gaps' at Chrysler
Chrysler, majority owned by Fiat, said some Jeep sport utility vehicles have been in short supply, with the discontinuation of the Liberty last summer and the recent launch of the 2014 Grand Cherokee. CEO Sergio Marchionne previously said first-quarter volumes would be lower than the same period last year due to the new-vehicle launches.
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"We expect to get our inventory gaps corrected over the next 90 days resulting in additional products contributing to our growth," Chrysler U.S. sales chief Reid Bigland said in a statement.
Like January, February is typically a slow sales month for the industry, so a small change in sales can have a large impact on the annual rate for the month.
U.S. industry sales rose 14 percent in January to an annual sales rate of 15.3 million - the third straight month above 15 million.
U.S. auto sales in 2012 rose more than 13 percent to 14.5 million cars and trucks.
While the current pace was below pre-recession U.S. sales volume, it is much higher than the 10.4 million new vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2009. That year marked the lowest sales level since the early 1980s and pushed GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy protection.
At Chrysler, Dodge brand sales in February rose 30 percent, while Ram Truck and Fiat 500 sales both rose 2 percent. Jeep and Chrysler brand sales fell 16 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
A successor to the Liberty, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee, will be unveiled later this month at the New York Auto Show and go on sale in May.
New Car Prices Rise
Chrysler sales surged despite rising new car prices. The average price for light vehicles in the U.S. was $30,958 in February, up $353 from the year-earlier month, according to auto pricing information firm TrueCar.
TrueCar estimated that the average incentive for light-vehicles was $2,392 in February, down $98 from the year-earlier period, but up $42 from January 2013.
"The auto industry continues to rebound and there's still a strong pent-up demand from consumers and businesses that have been holding off on buying a new car for years," said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for TrueCar.