An improving housing market and a lack of serious concern over Washington's latest fiscal fight drove sales increases in February for the major automakers.
General Motors' sales rose 7% from a year earlier, while Ford reported a 9% increase. Chrysler's February sales edged up 4% after speculation that the company's U.S. sales might break a streak of 34 straight months of sales increases.
Toyota sales rose 4.3%, Nissan sales fell 7% and Volkswagen rose 3%.
Despite gasoline prices nearing $4, full-size pickup trucks flourished last month as rising housing prices prompted more small businesses to buy vehicles.
Sales of Ford's F-Series, the most popular vehicle in the country, rose 15% to 54,489 units. GM's Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck rose 29% to 41,643 units, and the GMC Sierra rose 25% to 14,133 as GM sells 2013 models to make way for its redesigned 2014 pickups in the second quarter. Chrysler's Ram truck edged up 3% to 23,289.
"The recovery in home prices is building customer confidence, credit is available and affordable and consumers appear to be taking higher payroll taxes in stride, at least when it comes to replacing older vehicles," said Kurt McNeil, GM's vice president for U.S. sales operations, in a conference call.
The full-size pickup segment in February accounted for 12.3% of the industry, up from 12.1% in January and a huge increase from 10.7% a year ago, said Erich Merkle, Ford's U.S. sales analyst.
Ken Czubay, Ford vice president for U.S. sales, marketing and service, said he expects pickups will keep their larger share of the market, especially with improved housing and construction, which have an "incredible correlation" to truck sales.
The strong truck sales contrasted with pockets of weak sales for small and mid-size cars. Although Chevrolet sales rose 5% for the month, they would have fallen 1% without the Silverado's increase. The Chevy Malibu dropped 26%, Cruze fell 12% and Sonic slipped 24%.
At Nissan, the mid-size Altima fell 16%. Last year at this time Nissan was selling a higher volume of Altimas than normal as it cleared out inventory and prepared to launch a redesigned model.
Toyota reported a 9.5% decrease in sales for the mid-size Camry to 31,270, while sales of the Prius family of vehicles fell 13.5% to 17,812.
On the other hand, Chrysler sold 7,720 units of its new Dodge Dart compact, and Ford recorded a 28% increase for the Fusion sedan to 27,785 units.
Honda's 107,987 vehicles sold in February constituted a 2% decrease from a year ago. The Honda brand was down by 2.3% despite strong Accord sales while the luxury Acura brand was up 0.9%.
"It took a big winter storm in the Northeast to slow us down a bit, but our robust sales over the last three weeks show that our strong retail momentum continues," said John Mendel, executive vice president of Sales at American Honda. "With Accord posting strong numbers and spring just around the corner, the best is yet to come."
Hyundai set a new February record with sales of 52,311 units, up 2% from a year ago, on strong sales of the Santa Fe Sport and Elantra and boosted by heavy advertising during the Super Bowl and Academy Awards.
"February was another record month for Hyundai -- we had a terrific President's Day weekend event to kick off the spring selling season, much improved inventory levels, and great access to credit available to a broader band of buyers," said Dave Zuchowski, executive vice president of sales.
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