DETROIT – Tax increases. Rising gas prices. Political dysfunction in Washington. None of that kept Americans away from auto-dealer showrooms in February, as General Motors, Ford and other automakers posted strong sales gains.
Industry analysts expect last month’s sales to be up about 7 percent from a year earlier as pent-up demand and cheap financing kept the U.S. auto sales recovery powering along.
But while sales for 2013 are expected to top last year’s, monthly increases are likely to be smaller than the double-digit gains the industry posted during the last two years as sales recovered from historic lows in 2009.
GM sales rose 7 percent, while Ford’s increased 9 percent. Chrysler and Volkswagen also reported increases, but both slowed from the torrid pace of the last two years. Chrysler sales were up 4 percent from a year earlier, while VW sales were up 3 percent. Toyota sales were up just more than 4 percent.
GM’s sales were the best since February 2008, led by the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, with an increase of 29 percent.
Kurt McNeil, the company’s U.S. sales chief, said the recovery in new home construction is helping to boost the economy and pickup sales. When home construction thrives, businesses tend to invest more to replace vehicles. The average age of a U.S. pickup truck is just more than 11 years.
Ford also reported strong sales of its F-Series pickups, up 15 percent. 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. Together, the Escape and Fusion made up more than a quarter of Ford’s monthly sales.
Ford also said it plans to increase North American production by 9 percent in the second quarter compared with the second quarter of 2012.
At Chrysler, which reported a 21 percent sales increase for all of last year, the growth slowdown was expected. CEO Sergio Marchionne has warned that first-quarter sales would decline, largely because the company stopped making the Jeep Liberty midsize SUV as it prepares a factory in Toledo, Ohio, to build a replacement model. The new Jeep Cherokee is expected to hit showrooms in the summer.
Still, the company reported its 35th-straight month of year-over-year sales gains.
Volkswagen reported its best February since 1973, but sales were far off the pace of VW’s 31 percent increase last year.
Toyota reported strong sales of the RAV4 small SUV and Avalon large car.