DETROIT — Fans of SUVs and trucks shoved car buyers aside last month, helping the auto industry to its best October in four years.
The shift was a boon for Detroit's automakers, which posted sizable increases in sales of pickups like the Ram and Chevy Silverado, big SUVs like the Ford Explorer and compact models like the Ford Escape.
U.S. car and truck sales rose 8 percent from last October to 1.02 million, making this the best October since 2007, before the recession hit. Sales are now tracking at a pace similar to the start of this year, before the earthquake and tsunami cut off supplies, according to Autodata Corp. Analysts expect them to stay at that pace through the rest of this year and into 2012.
"The economy isn't expected to pick up significantly, and I think that's going to hold us in this pattern of slow growth, stability to slow growth," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive.
Pent-up demand helped October sales. Inventories of Japanese cars are getting close to normal, so car shoppers who spent the summer waiting for them to reappear on dealer lots could finally buy them in October.
Toyota said Tuesday it will kick off its annual year-end sales event early. Although the marketing surrounding the "Toyotathon" and Lexus "December to Remember" sales events won't start until closer to Thanksgiving, the deals will be available to shoppers immediately, said Bob Carter, Toyota's U.S. sales chief.
Detroit automakers barely increased their incentive spending in October, but they did shift their marketing to trucks, a typical move during football season.
Truck buyers paid attention. Ford said sales of its Explorer SUV more than tripled from a year ago, while F-Series truck sales were up 7 percent.
Chrysler said Ram pickup truck sales jumped 21 percent. Sales of the new Dodge Durango also were strong.
Sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup rose 11 percent. And the compact Chevrolet Cruze continues to post big gains a year after its introduction, with October sales up 194 percent.
Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president for U.S. sales, said car buyers are increasingly shifting back to small SUVs and wagons, since gas prices are holding steady. Gas now averages $3.44 per gallon across the country, down from a peak near $4 in May, but still up 64 cents from a year earlier.