Editor's note: Previous versions of this story incorrectly characterized the 1 percent gain in August light-vehicle sales. They made a 1 percent year-over-year improvement.
Fueled by cash for clunkers, U.S. auto sales ended a 21-month skid in August, registering the first year-over-year increase since October 2007.
But the increase was modest -- a mere 1.0 percent above August 2008.
Industry sales totaled 1.3 million units, topping the 1 million mark for the first time since last August. Demand hit a 13.7-million-unit annual rate, the highest since August 2008.
Ford, Subaru and Hyundai-Kia were the biggest gainers. Chrysler and GM were off by double digits, both worse than their July declines.
“This was a very short-lived, ‘booster shot' of a program,” Goldman Sachs analyst Patrick Archambault said of cash for clunkers.
Most automakers' results were worse than analysts' expectations because of sharp declines after cash for clunkers ended Aug. 24, he said.
Ford leads Detroit 3
Ford Motor Co.'s light-vehicle sales rose 17.2 percent, their largest increase since July 2005. The gain followed Ford's 2.4 percent increase in July, which was its first year-over-year growth in 19 months.
Subaru's sales spiked 51.5 percent for the brand's best month ever, spokeswoman Heather Ward confirmed. It also was Subaru's largest increase since at least 1998, according to Automotive News data. Subaru's eight-month sales were 11.2 percent above last year's levels.
Hyundai-Kia's sales soared 52.1 percent in August, the biggest increase since the companies joined in July 2002. The gain put their eight-month sales lift at 0.8 percent. Hyundai-Kia and Subaru are the only automakers ahead of their 2008 pace.
GM was off 20.1 percent in August, following its 19.4 percent drop in July.
Mike DiGiovanni, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis, said sales in August 2008 were inflated because of GM's employee-pricing incentives tied to its 100th birthday. The company still saw a 20.3 percent year-over-year decline in August 2008.
“We were starting to hit the stride of the declines, and I think they offset some of that with their programs last year -- not all of it,” J.D. Power and Associates analyst Jeff Schuster said.
Chrysler's sales fell 15.4 percent, worse than July's 9.4 percent drop. Chrysler spokeswoman Kathy Graham blamed the sales decline on low inventory, saying the company had five vehicles that ended August with less than a 10-day supply.
The Chrysler Sebring sedan and convertible and Chrysler PT Cruiser both had a six-day supply, the Jeep Compass a four-day supply and both the Jeep Patriot and Dodge Avenger a three-day supply.
At Volkswagen Group of America, sales rose 14.2 percent in August, the biggest rise since May 2006.
Honda's best August ever
Honda's light-vehicle sales increased 9.9 percent, the biggest year-over-year monthly increase since May 2008. The 161,439 units it sold made last month its best August ever, Honda said.
Sales at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. rose 6.4 percent gain, its largest increase since June 2007. Toyota was the top-selling brand in the government's clunker program, according to government data.
At Ford, F-series sales rose 12.8 percent in August to 45,590, the first increase since October 2006, Ford said.
That provides “an indication that small-business owners are seeing signs of recovery,” Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president for U.S. marketing, sales and service, said in a statement.
Ford also noted a 55.9 percent rise in Focus sales and a 49.3 percent boost for the Escape crossover. The Focus ranked No. 4 in vehicles purchased in the cash-for-clunkers program and the front-wheel-drive Escape finished 10th, according to government data. Federal statistics separate vehicles' fwd and four-wheel-drive models.
Sales lull expected
After the August boost from the clunker program, analysts see a lull ahead.
“What's most meaningful is what's going to follow August,” Goldman Sachs' Archambault said. He said he's expecting the sales rate in September and October to hover around 10 million units before increasing to an 11- or 12-million-unit rate in November and December.
“You take some pain in September and October, and then you move on,” he said. “If it's something more sinister than that, if demand was propped up and made to seem higher than it was, that would obviously be bad news.”
U.S. auto sales rates were languishing at 27-year lows until July. The introduction that month of the federal cash-for-clunkers program, which paid consumers up to $4,500 to trade in gas guzzlers for new vehicles with better fuel efficiency, pushed the July sales rate to 11.1 million. That was the first time demand had passed 9.9 million this year.
Richard Truett, Bradford Wernle and Jamie LaReau contributed to this report