DETROIT — U.S. buyers shrugged off economic worries and snapped up SUVs and pickups last month, surprising the auto industry and raising hopes that a bumpy year will end on a high note.
Big trucks typically sell when the housing market and construction industry are strong, gas prices are low and consumer confidence is high. None of those was true in September. The economy remains weak, confidence is shaky and a gallon of gas costs nearly $1 per more than it did in September 2010.
But other factors boosted truck sales. Small businesses must eventually replace aging fleets of work trucks, and auto companies offered some good deals to clear out 2011 model trucks. They also stepped up their marketing. And consumers are learning to live with economic uncertainty.
"We see consumers being more comfortable with buying cars in a continuously volatile environment," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insights for the car pricing site TrueCar.com. "Traditionally, they would have postponed making the purchase decision."
U.S. vehicle sales rose 10 percent from last September, according to Autodata Corp. September saw the fastest sales pace since April, and automakers expect that pace to stay steady for the rest of this year.
Nearly 54 percent of vehicles sold were trucks and SUVs, the highest percentage this year. That's good news for automakers, which make much bigger profits on trucks and SUVs. Truck sales at General Motors, Chrysler and Ford grew in the double digits, outpacing cars. Even Honda, which normally gets the bulk of its sales from cars, sold 3,000 more trucks than cars.
A shortage of cars is another reason truck and SUV sales were strong. Analysts had expected more Japanese cars to fill showrooms after months of shortages related to March's earthquake and tsunami.
But Honda and Toyota continued to struggle with product shortages. Toyota's September sales were down 17.5 percent, while Honda's fell 8 percent.
Bob Carter, Toyota's U.S. sales chief, said October should be a turning point. With all of its plants now running, the automaker expects its Toyota division to post its first year-over-year sales increase since April and it expects to post sales increases through the fourth quarter and beyond.
Many buyers were replacing trucks in September because they had to. The average truck on the road is now about 10.1 years old, according to R.L. Polk and Associates.
"A commercial owner cannot afford to have their vehicle out of service," said Don Johnson, GM's vice president of U.S. sales.
Automakers don't expect the pace of sales to slow for the rest of the year, but some analysts say September's boost will be short-lived because economic worries could still dampen sales.
GM's September sales rose 20 percent, led by a 34 percent rise in sales of full-size pickups and SUVs. Chrysler's sales rose 27 percent, while Ford's were up 9 percent.
Other automakers reporting sales Monday:
• Nissan's sales were up almost 29 percent. The company's cars led the way with sales of the Altima midsize sedan, Sentra compact, Versa subcompact and Maxima large sedan up a combined 32 percent for the month.
• Hyundai said sales rose 12 percent
• Volkswagen's sales rose 37 percent on the strength of the new Jetta and Passat sedans.