UPDATE 1-Automakers post lower U.S. February auto sales as market cools

(Adds details from Nissan, Toyota, comments from Ford, GM, updates share prices)

DETROIT, March 1 (Reuters) - Major automakers reported lower U.S. new vehicle sales for February on Thursday as consumer demand continued to cool following a lengthy boom, despite strong crossovers and SUV sales, sending shares of carmakers down.

No. 1 U.S. automaker General Motors Co posted a 6.9 percent decline in overall sales versus the same month in 2017. The automaker said sales to consumers were down 10 percent "compared to an exceptionally strong February 2017."

"The impact of tax reform and tax refunds aren't being felt fully by consumers yet," said GM Chief Economist Mustafa Mohatarem. "We expect consumer spending to pick up as tax cuts are reflected in pay checks."

GM's lower-margin fleet sales climbed 7 percent, driven by a 15 percent rise in commercial vehicles. Crossovers and SUVs fared well in GM's sales.

But its Silverado and Sierra pickup truck models dropped significantly versus the same month a year earlier. A spokesman attributed this to a shortage of hot-selling versions and switching to 2018 models sooner than its rivals, who were still discounting 2017 models to get them off dealer lots.

U.S. auto industry sales fell 2 percent last year to 17.23 million vehicles after hitting a record high in 2016.

New vehicle sales are expected to drop further in 2018 despite a solid economy.

Interest rates are rising and around 4 million late-model used cars will return to dealer lots this year to compete with more expensive new ones.


No. 2 U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co said its sales also fell, by 6.9 percent, with an 8.5 percent drop for retail sales.

The main bright spot for Ford was a 1.2 percent increase in pickup truck sales, as its best-selling F-Series models posted their 10th consecutive months of sales gains.

"The F-Series continues to be a great story for us," Ford's U.S. sales chief, Mark LaNeve, said on a conference call.

LaNeve said the automaker was struggling to keep up with demand for two large, high-margin SUV models, the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator, despite raising production targets in February.

"We just dont have enough vehicles," LaNeve said.

But Ford's passenger car sales sank 12 percent in February. American consumers have been steadily abandoning passenger cars in favor of larger and more comfortable SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) reported a 1 percent overall decline in February sales, as retail sales fell 1 percent and fleet sales dropped 3 percent.

FCA has pursued a strategy of cutting lower-margin fleet sales to rental car companies, government agencies and others in favor of higher-margin sales to consumers.

The automaker said its popular Jeep brand's total sales surged 12 percent, while its Ram pickup trucks were down as a 44 percent decrease in fleet sales more than offset an 8 percent increase in retail sales.

Nissan Motor Co Ltd said overall sales in February fell 4 percent, despite a 9 percent rise in sales of pickup trucks, crossovers and SUVs.

Toyota Motor Corp bucked the trend for the month, posting a 4.5 percent increase in sales in February, as a 10.3 percent gain in SUV and pickup truck sales offset a 2.6 percent drop in passenger cars.

In morning trading, GM shares were down 1.7 percent at $38.67, Ford shares were down 0.8 percent at $10.52 and FCA was down 1.7 percent at $20.84. (Editing by Susan Thomas and Bernadette Baum)