DETROIT — The U.S. auto sales recovery picked up steam last month, with all major car companies reporting double-digit gains.
General Motors led the way with a whopping 49 percent U.S. sales jump compared with February of 2010, followed closely by Toyota, with a 42 percent gain.
Nissan and Honda had gains of 32 percent and 22 percent, respectively, while Hyundai's sales went up 28 percent.
Chrysler and Ford showed much smaller increases at 13 and 10 percent, respectively.
The companies said Tuesday that consumers snapped up both cars and trucks, buoyed by a gradually improving economy, and the U.S. automakers pointed to strong sales of new models. But the sales gains, especially for GM, were juiced by sweeter financing and lease deals.
The auto industry website TrueCar.com estimated that automakers raised incentives 5 percent from January to February to an average of $2,708 per vehicle. Chrysler, Ford, Nissan and Toyota all sweetened deals by more than 6 percent for the month, the site said.
Also, Toyota's gain, while impressive, was compared with a bad month last year when a string of embarrassing safety recalls had reached its peak.
Don Johnson, GM's vice president of U.S. sales, said GM has noticed more customers looking at small cars since gas prices have gone up, but consumer buying habits have yet to change.
Ford, however, said some customers were shifting to smaller cars as gas rose well above $3 per gallon nationwide because of turmoil in the Middle East.
"With oil nearing $100 per barrel and gasoline prices continuing to rise, consumers' consideration for fuel economy once again is taking top billing," Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of U.S. sales, said in a statement.
GM chief executive Dan Akerson at the Geneva Auto Show cautioned against optimism for the industry because of the rising oil prices.
"I don't think the industry learned a lot of lessons from 2008. They will this time around," he said of the 2008 spike in U.S. gas prices to above $4 per gallon.