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U.S. auto sales power ahead in February

DETROIT — Americans want new cars and trucks, and they're not letting higher gas prices or political dysfunction stand in their way.

New car and truck sales were up 4 percent in February as rising home construction and cheap financing kept the U.S. auto recovery on track. While the pace of growth is slowing, industry analysts expect more gains in the coming months, saying there's little that could derail demand for new cars.

"We think the fundamentals are strong, and that's what's important, and that's what's driving the economy," said Kurt McNeil, General Motors' U.S. sales chief.

February sales hit an annualized rate of 15.4 million cars and trucks. That's still short of the recent peak of close to 17 million in 2005, but it's quite healthy compared with the anemic 10.4 million recorded during the recession in 2009.

Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit forecasting firm, raised his full-year sales forecast Friday from 15.1 million to 15.2 million. Schuster said U.S. spending cuts could affect auto sales toward the end of the year, but he doesn't expect that to happen.

"Beyond that or some other external shock, I think it's full speed ahead," he said.

Truck sales boomed in February as more new homes were built. McNeil said GM's pickup sales to small businesses were up 40 percent from a year ago, which is a strong signal of confidence in the underlying economy.

"This is probably the beginning of the strong comeback of trucks that we're going to see for the rest of year," said Jesse Toprak, a senior industry analyst with the car buying site TrueCar.com.

To keep up that momentum, GM announced that it will offer free scheduled maintenance for two years or 24,000 miles on its full-sized Chevrolet and GMC trucks. The offer runs through April.

GM's sales rose 7 percent to their highest February level since 2008. Chevrolet Silverado pickup sales jumped 29 percent, which helped make up for faltering sales of cars such as the Chevrolet Malibu and Cruze.

Ford's sales increased 9 percent. Ford reported a 15 percent gain for its F-Series pickups, which are the best-selling vehicles in the United States. The company also posted record February totals for the Escape SUV and Fusion sedan. Fusion sales were up 28 percent, and Escape sales rose 29 percent.

Ford said it plans to increase North American production by 9 percent in the second quarter compared with the same period in 2012.

Toyota's sales were up just over 4 percent, with strong sales of the RAV4 small SUV and Avalon large sedan. Tundra pickup sales also jumped 16 percent. Despite higher gas prices, sales of the Prius hybrid were down 13.5 percent.

On the right road

Percentage change in February U.S. sales for major automakers, compared with February 2012:

FordGeneral MotorsToyotaChryslerVolkswagenHyundaiHondaNissan
+9 percent+7 percent+4 percent+4 percent+3 percent+2 percent-2 percent-7 percent

U.S. auto sales power ahead in February 03/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 10:54pm]
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