February U.S. auto sales climbed 13 percent for their fifth straight monthly increase.
It was an uphill slog. Last month, the Toyota recall crisis scared away many potential customers. Record snowfalls in the East reduced showroom traffic to a trickle on some days. And General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group are still recovering from their bankruptcy hangovers.
Still, sales rose to 780,463 units. February's seasonally adjusted annualized sales rate of 10.4 million matched the consensus forecast of analysts surveyed by Reuters and Bloomberg.
But let's keep some perspective. Sales are still way behind pre-recession levels. Yes, February's sales were up -- but the year-earlier month was the worst of the sales crisis, when the SAAR slipped to a mere 9.1 million. The industry's comeback continues to be slow and fragile.
For example, GM sold 141,535 light vehicles last month, vs. 268,737 in February 2008.
Nevertheless, Ford Motor Co. can be forgiven if it pops the cork on a small bottle of champagne.
Ford sales rose 43 percent in February, and it topped GM. It was the first month that Ford outsold GM since July 1998, when parts maker Delphi Corp. struck GM, starving dealers for inventory.
Ford's February climb came on top of a 25 percent January increase and a 33 percent rise in December.
It's now quite possible that Ford could top GM for 2010. The last year that Ford outsold GM in the United States was 1930.
Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s sales fell 9 percent. But they could have been much worse given the drumbeat of bad headlines about unexpected acceleration, recalls and hearings in Washington, D.C.
Many analysts had expected Chrysler Group to join Toyota in posting a decline last month. Chrysler didn't lose, but its gain was less than a percent.
American Honda rose 13 percent. Hyundai-Kia sales increased 10 percent.
Analysts had expected Toyota's February sales to drop at least 10 percent from the previous February.
Dealers and analysts said rivals have had limited success in poaching Toyota customers, with most customers delaying any decision to abandon the automaker.
"There is a wait-and-see approach by Toyota loyalists," said Chris Hopson, an analyst with IHS Global Insight. "They want to see how this plays out before making a buying decision."
But while careful not to claim Ford stole Toyota customers in February, Ford sales boss Ken Czubay is combative.
"Toyota will be back merchandizing in March," he said at Ford's sales conference call today. "So will we. Let's check back one month from today."
Czubay noted that Toyota's recall crisis has run about 40 days, but the Ford Fusion, the automaker's primary weapon against the Toyota Camry, has sold well since its redesign last spring.
"Fusion has set sales records 10 of the last 11 months, so don't pay attention to 40 days." he said.
At GM, a combined 33 percent advance at Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC more than made up for an 86 percent drop at the automaker's four canceled brands: Hummer, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn.
Nissan North America was the other big winner among the largest automakers, up 29 percent.
Two smaller automakers also did well last month. Volkswagen Group of America sales jumped 33 percent. And Subaru, which is the only automaker to gain in both of the last two years in the U.S. market, was up 38 percent.