It's not quite time to sing "Happy Days are Here Again." But in September, the U.S. auto industry posted its best monthly sales rate in 13 months.
The industry sold 959,049 light vehicles in September -- a year-to-year jump of 29 percent -- for a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 12.2 million, as calculated by the Automotive News Data Center. Last September, inventories were depleted in the aftermath of the federal government's cash-for-clunkers incentive program.
Other than August 2009, when the clunkers program inflated the sales rate to 13.7 million, this September was the first month since September 2008 that the sales rate has surpassed 12 million. The rate in September 2008 also was 12.2 million.
"It's a solid month, another step in a stable, somewhat painful recovery," said analyst Jesse Toprak of TrueCar.com. "This may be a healthier way to recover."
George Pipas, Ford Motor Co.'s lead sales analyst, said September capped the fourth straight quarter of modest recovery in the sales rate.
And modest improvement is just fine at this point, Pipas said. It may keep industry players from falling back into the bad habits -- overproduction and massive incentives -- that led to disaster for so many when U.S. auto sales tanked.
"We're happy with what we're getting," Pipas said. "We're not going to waste a lot of time wishing that things would go quicker."
Among the gainers last month:
-- Ford Motor's sales jumped 40 percent to 160,375. With strong sales of pickups and new vehicles such as the Fiesta subcompact, Ford narrowed its gap behind General Motors Co. and solidified its lead over Toyota Motor Sales for the year.
It now looks as if Ford will maintain the No. 2 spot for all of 2010, said Edmunds.com analyst Ivan Drury. Ford has sold 1.5 million vehicles through September vs. 1.3 million for Toyota.
"It would be very difficult for them to fall down and allow Toyota to get that No. 2 spot again," Drury said.
-- GM's sales rose just 11 percent in September to 173,031, including its four discontinued brands. Sales at GM's four core brands -- Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC -- rose 22 percent. Retail sales of the core brands jumped 39 percent.
Big pickups contributed significantly to the automaker's retail and overall sales improvements in September, said Don Johnson, GM vice president of U.S. sales operations.
-- At Toyota Motor Sales, sales rose 17 percent for September to 147,162. It was a good month, but after a strong start, the pace was erratic, said Bob Carter, Toyota Division general manager.
"Sales were so strong during Labor Day that it felt like 2006 again," Carter said. "But by the end of the month, the pace had slowed to a more typical 2010 level."
-- Chrysler Group posted the biggest year-over-year increase of any manufacturer for the month, rising 61 percent to 100,077.
"Chrysler is benefiting from stable gas prices and the highly visible launch of the redesigned Grand Cherokee," said Edmund's Drury. "As long as consumers are not worried about high fuel costs, Chrysler should be able to maintain a decent sales pace, since 71 percent of Chrysler sales are trucks."
Of the large manufacturers, the biggest gainers for the month were Chrysler, Hyundai Motor America and Ford. The smallest increases came from GM and Toyota. Nissan and Honda were in the middle of the pack.
With three months to go, Toyota's Carter and other manufacturers reiterated their earlier forecasts that 2010 sales would come in around 11.5 million vehicles.
But after the roller-coaster ride of the past two-plus years, auto executives have learned not to count on anything.
"That's a tough one to call," said Timothy Colbeck, senior vice president of sales at Subaru of America, which posted a 47 percent increase for September. "Every time you think you're starting to see momentum build, it seems like something sets us back a little bit."
And while some economic indicators are improving, others remain troubled.
"We're hopeful that the fourth quarter will log a good SAAR," said Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, Ford's chief economist. "But as you know, we have this so-called troika of challenges out there on jobs, housing and credit."
David Barkholz, Ryan Beene and Jesse Snyder contributed to this report