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UPDATE 2-Nissan, Chrysler post U.S. sales gains, seen above competition

DETROIT, March 3 (Reuters) - Chrysler Group and Nissan Motor Co each posted double-digit gains in U.S. February auto sales on Monday, outstripping analysts' expectations and far surpassing estimates for the industry as a whole.

A poll of 34 analysts by Thomson Reuters showed expectations that overall U.S. sales would be flat with a year earlier. Continued cold weather in the month probably kept many car shoppers away from dealers, analysts said.

Chrysler, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said demand for its two top-selling Jeep models, the Grand Cherokee and the Cherokee SUVs, had helped push its total monthly sales up 11 percent to 154,866 vehicles.

Analysts had expected a rise of 8 percent.

Sales of Chrysler's top-selling vehicle, the Ram pickup truck, increased 24 percent.

Chrysler said it expected industrywide U.S. auto sales of 15.8 million vehicles in February on an annualized basis. The figure includes medium and heavy trucks that the U.S. auto industry generally does not count. Excluding them, the Chrysler estimate would be 15.5 million vehicles.

The 34 analysts polled by Reuters expected a 15.4 million vehicle sales rate.

Nissan showed a gain of 16 percent, led by a 73 percent jump in its Rogue crossover vehicle's sales. Analysts had expected a rise of 12 percent.

Industrywide, the average incentive, a discount to entice consumers but which also eats into auto companies' profit margins, rose 5 percent to $2,633 per vehicle in February from a year earlier and was up 3.3 percent from January, according to the TrueCar research firm and car-buying website.

Partly offsetting the higher incentives was a 3.6 percent rise in average transaction prices, or the figures at which autos are sold.

"Incentive spending is outpacing the rise in average transaction prices, despite year-over-year ATP increases for most automakers," said Larry Dominique, executive vice president of TrueCar. "We expect a return to balance once the winter subsides and inventories ease."

Some of the heftiest incentives are being offered by the top two sellers in the U.S. market, General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co, for full-size pickup trucks. Ford posted incentives of $8,000 on the best-selling vehicle in the country, the F-150 pickup, and GM layered on incentives as high as $9,000 on its Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, according to internet listings from last week.

Nissan had its best February in the U.S. market on record, selling 115,600 vehicles. Sales rose 17 percent for its primary Nissan brand and gained 6 percent for its luxury Infiniti brand.

Fred Diaz, Nissan's senior vice president for U.S. sales, said February was the 11th month in the last 12 that the company set U.S. sales records.

Nissan's sales increase for February beat the expectations of eight of the nine analysts who gave forecasts for the company's performance.

GM is expected to show a decrease in February sales of 6 percent, according to 10 analysts polled by Reuters. Analysts on average also said sales would fall 6 percent at Ford from a year earlier and remain about even at Toyota Motor Corp.

Analysts on average estimated Honda Motor Co's sales for February had risen about 1 percent and that those of Hyundai Motor Co and Kia Motors Corp were about the same as a year earlier.

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