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April autos sell at a pace of 17.4M

Detroit automakers reported another month of strong demand from U.S. consumers for trucks and sport utility vehicles on Tuesday, but their shares dropped as analysts focused on signs the world's second largest auto market has little room to grow.

April autos sold at a pace of 17.4 million vehicles, according to Autodata. But shares of U.S. car makers Ford and GM were 1.39 percent and 1.57 percent lower, respectively, Tuesday after General Motors posted a decline in U.S. sales, while rival Ford saw sales increase.

General Motors' total sales fell 3.5 percent to 259,557 vehicles as daily rental sales declined, despite growing retail sales of the Chevrolet brand.

Chevrolet had its best April for retail sales since 2006, especially impacted by the Malibu's 45 percent sales bounce, the company said. But less profitable rental deliveries are expected to continue their slide this month, and will make May the largest single-month decline of 2015-2016, the company estimates.

Ford Motors reported on Tuesday that April U.S. auto sales rose 4 percent. The automaker also said that its retail sales grew 3 percent, also its best April retail results since 2006.

"We saw strong consumer demand in April, especially for pickups," said Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, in a statement.

Ford brand SUVs saw its best-ever April with sales of the Explorer model up 22 percent. The Ford F-Series sales surpassed 70,000 for the second straight month. The automaker said that it also saw its strongest April van sales since 1978.

Each month, auto sales are an early indicator of U.S. consumer spending, and the auto industry has generally been ahead of the overall economy since a recovery for the industry began after sales hit a bottom in 2009.

Wall Street analysts say the U.S. auto market is close to a cyclical peak and that more production cuts, which hurt profits, could be needed to keep inventories of vehicles from ballooning later in the year.

"We continue to believe sales growth will be muted this year," Joseph Spak of RBC Capital said in a note to investors. Inventory data issued early on Tuesday, pointed to some possible "risk to North American production over the coming months," Spak added.

The sluggish pace of U.S. economic growth adds to concerns that the auto industry recovery could run out of fuel.

Among other automakers, Toyota Motor reported a 3.8 percent increase in sales, to 211,125 units, pushed higher by sales of Highlander, RAV4 and 4Runner and Lexus' LUV and crossover models.

"The industry had its strongest April in more than 10 years, possibly a best-ever month," Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager, said in a statement.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported that April U.S. auto sales rose 6 percent, setting the stage for the industry to meet analysts' expectations for the highest April sales since 2005.

"Consumer preference for SUVs and pickup trucks continued unabated in April and helped to propel us to our strongest April sales in 11 years," said Reid Bigland, head of sales for the automaker in North America.

For Volkswagen AG's namesake brand, sales dropped 9.7 percent as it continued to suffer from a diesel emissions scandal and the lack of competitive SUV or pickup truck models in the U.S. market. Honda's sales rose 14.4 percent.

"SUVs and crossovers continue to drive the industry," said Tom Libby, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "Small mainstream crossovers such as the (Honda) CR-V and (Ford) Escape are the most popular vehicles."

— CNBC's Phil LeBeau Anita Balakrishnan and Christine Wang contributed to this report.