Japanese brands had a winning August, helping to push U.S. auto sales
to some of the best results since before the economic downturn.
Honda reported sales up 27 percent from a year ago, with Toyota and Nissan each posting increases of more than 20 percent.
For Honda, the Ohio-made CR-V had its best month ever, with 34,654 sold.
"With three of our core models topping 30,000 units and the Honda brand up more than 29 percent, our August sales definitely didn't take a break for the holiday weekend," John Mendel, executive vice president of sales at American Honda, said in a statement.
Sales in August ran at an annual rate of 16.1 million cars and trucks, a pace not seen since November 2007, a month before the start the recession.
General Motors reported sales up 15 percent, which was the greatest percentage increase for a U.S.-based automaker. Ford and Chrysler each were up 12 percent.
"We have a lot of momentum and we feel good about the direction of the U.S. economy as we prepare to launch even more new products, including all-new heavy-duty pickups and large SUVs for Chevrolet and GMC, a completely redesigned Cadillac CTS and the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray," Kurt McNeil, GM's vice president for U.S. sales, said in a statement.
Nissan's sales were up 22 percent, helped by a strong showing by the Rogue crossover. The company says this was its best month since it started doing business in the United States.
The results exceeded expectations for Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, the automotive pricing service. He sees some common themes behind the performances of Honda, Toyota and Nissan.
"It comes down to their redesigns in some key segments and the push for affordable, fuel-efficient transportation," he said.
Some Americans still find $3-plus gasoline reason to buy a small car. Others have noticed that smaller vehicles are better-designed, far quieter and safer with more features, said Tom Libby, lead North American analyst for the Polk automotive research firm.
Still, gas prices aren't the sales catalyst they were back in 2007 and 2008. Gas this August was the cheapest in three years, averaging $3.57 a gallon, compared with $3.62 in 2011 and $3.69 last year.
Compare that to 2007, when the price of gasoline jumped from $2.15 a gallon at the end of January to more than $3 in early May. That May, sales of the Prius nearly tripled as consumers flocked to a vehicle that got 46 miles per gallon in city and highway driving.
"Consumers like stability," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of sales forecasting for LMC. Now that they're used to higher gas prices, "It's less of a shock than in May of 2007," he said.
The average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads today is a record 11.4 years, says the Polk research firm. That means more people have to replace cars and trucks that they kept through the recession.
Consumers are spending at record levels to buy loaded-up vehicles, according to the TrueCar.com auto-pricing website. The average U.S. vehicle sold for an estimated $31,252 last month, up almost $1,000 over August of last year and $24 higher than the previous record in December 2012. Five automakers -- Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Nissan and Volkswagen -- all had record-high selling prices last month, TrueCar reported.
High trade-in values are allowing automakers to offer attractive low-cost lease deals. And low interest rates are giving buyers room to add options and still keep monthly payments relatively low. The industry tracking firm Experian said this week that nearly 28 percent of people who financed cars in the second quarter leased them, a record high.
Of major automakers, only Volkswagen posted a decline, nearly 2 percent.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this story.
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