Stronger retail sales, aided by slightly higher incentives, pushed U.S. sales up 5 percent in July compared with July 2009, a period that happened to include the first week of the cash-for-clunkers bonanza.
July's seasonally adjusted annual selling rate of 11.6 million was higher than the first half's 11.1 million, showing that the slow recovery is continuing. But sales for the month fell below most analysts' expectations.
Fleet sales declined in July, industry executives said. But retail consumers started looking for bargains at the end of the model year, said analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive.
"People are looking for a good deal," she said. "But we can't get consumers really moving because they don't see jobs coming back."
Light trucks drove industrywide sales. Cars regained a majority share of the U.S. market from light trucks in 2008. But with gasoline pump prices remaining below $3 a gallon, trucks are making a comeback this year. In July, U.S. light-truck sales jumped 19 percent to just over half a million. Car volume dropped 5 percent to 549,805.
Hyundai-Kia and Nissan were the only major automakers to post double-digit gains.
Hyundai-Kia's sales jumped 20 percent in July, but the average per-vehicle incentive for the group fell to $1,907, down from about $2,500 during most of the first half of 2009, according to Edmunds.com.
Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai Motor America sales chief, said the brand has been unable to keep up with demand for recently redesigned products such as the Tucson SUV and Sonata sedan.
"Our biggest problem is we can't build enough cars," he said.
Nissan North America boosted July sales 15 percent over July 2009 to 82,337 light vehicles but increased spiffs $234 from last July, to $2,839 -- Nissan's highest-ever incentive level.
Industrywide, incentives rose an average of $63 per vehicle compared with June, to $2,753, and are up from $2,686 in July 2009, according to Edmunds.com.