Fears that car buyers would stay away from dealerships in August never materialized.
Instead, Americans were lured by new models, cheaper financing and the need to replace aging cars. As a result, August sales rose 7.5 percent compared with the same month last year, according to Autodata Corp.
Most major automakers reported healthy sales increases in August, led by Chrysler with a 31 percent jump. Toyota and Honda saw double-digit declines as they continued to struggle with earthquake-related car shortages.
"Consumers are inching back into buying items — and some big-ticket purchases," said Paul Ballew, a former GM chief economist who now works for Nationwide Insurance.
If sales stayed at August's pace, they would end the year at 12.1 million. That's better than last year's 11.6 million, but still far below 17 million in 2005. Because they have cut staffing and factories since the recession, automakers are turning profits at the lower sales levels. But they're still hoping for a better autumn, as supplies of Japanese cars get back to normal and new cars such as the redesigned Toyota Camry go on sale.
Even Hurricane Irene could boost sales, as people whose cars were damaged or destroyed by the storm look for new ones.
Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insights for the car pricing site TrueCar.com, says the hurricane cost automakers about 5,000 sales in the last weekend of August, but he expects them to be made up later. GM says it will offer $500 to car buyers in major disaster areas and let those buyers defer payments for 90 days.
Chrysler Group's sales jump was due to strong demand for Jeeps and minivans. General Motors' sales rose 18 percent, led by the Chevrolet Cruze small car, which accounted for one in every 10 GM vehicles sold.
New models also boosted Ford's sales, which rose 11 percent on the strength of the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle and Ford Fiesta subcompact.
But Toyota's sales fell almost 13 percent, while Honda's sales slid 24 percent. Dealers are still short on many top-selling models like the Civic.