Orders for durable goods rose last month by the largest amount in two years, but the rise was mainly fueled by the volatile transportation sector.
The Commerce Department said Wednesday that orders for goods expected to last at least three years increased 4.9 percent in July, the third rise in the past four months. Analysts expected a 3 percent increase.
Orders for June were revised up to a 1.3 percent drop, from a 2.2 percent decline.
Orders for transportation equipment, which rose 18.4 percent, drove the overall increase. Commercial aircraft orders, a volatile category, more than doubled after falling 30 percent in June. Motor vehicle orders increased 0.9 percent.
Excluding transportation goods, orders rose 0.8 percent. That was the third straight increase, but just below analysts' expectations of a 0.9 percent rise.
Orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, a key measure of business investment, dropped 0.3 percent. Some economists expected that category to fall after rising in May and June.
Economists at Barclays Capital said before the report that orders for Boeing Co. aircraft rose in July to their highest level since last August.
Auto production improved last month as General Motors and Chrysler reopened many plants that were shut in May and June while the companies restructured and emerged from bankruptcy protection.
The industry also benefited from the government's Cash for Clunkers program, which spurred thousands of people to trade in older vehicles for new cars.
Ford Motor earlier this month said its sales rose 2.4 percent in July from the same month last year, its first year-over-year increase since November 2007.
Chrysler Group posted a smaller year-over-year sales drop compared with recent months, helped by clunkers deals. GM's sales fell 19.4 percent, a slower pace than earlier this year.