DETROIT -- A streaking Chrysler Group and a record-setting Hyundai helped U.S. light vehicle sales rise 8 percent in October, keeping the industry's recovery on track amid economic uncertainties.
Sales hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 13.26 million units, just shy of the 2011 high set in February. Toyota Motor Sales and American Honda showed signs of recovery, posting their smallest declines since the March earthquake in Japan.
"The relatively strong selling rate seen again in October suggests that the fourth quarter may close stronger than previously expected," Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates, said in a statement.
"Recent bright spots in the economy may also help calm nerves and support stable vehicle sales, but risks remain and consumer confidence is still low, tempering the outlook for 2012," he said.
It was the eighth consecutive month in which U.S. car and light truck sales surpassed 1 million units. It was also the second straight month and fifth time this year the SAAR has topped 13 million.
The sales rate hit a 2011 low of 11.54 million units in June -- when Japanese vehicle stockpiles dwindled following the earthquake and tsunami.
Light-vehicle sales are now up 10 percent to 10.5 million units through October. That's more than the industry sold in all of 2009, the weakest year for demand in nearly three decades.
Chrysler produced a 27 percent gain in October sales and led all major automakers. Chrysler's advance marked the fifth consecutive increase of 20 percent or more and its 19th straight monthly rise.
Hyundai, up 23 percent, and Kia, up 22 percent, continued their recent gains and remain on pace to set new U.S. sales records.
Hyundai has sold 545,316 vehicles in the United States this year, topping an annual record set in 2010.
General Motors was up 2 percent, well below its gains of recent months. Ford Motor Co. advanced 6 percent.
Toyota Motor Corp. sales fell 8 percent in October, but it was the smallest decline during the automaker's six-month slide following the March earthquake. American Honda said its U.S. sales fell less than 1 percent. That was also its smallest decline during its half-year post-earthquake drop.
The Volkswagen brand, led by the new, U.S.-built Passat, recorded a 40 percent increase. And Nissan North America's sales rose 18 percent.
Ford's increase came on the strength of a 13 percent gain at the Ford division; Lincoln sales were off 11 percent.
GM's 2 percent increase was helped by a 6 percent gain at Chevrolet. GMC, Buick and Cadillac were down.
GM said car sales increased 4 percent, crossover sales fell 1 percent and demand for trucks, vans and SUVs advanced 2 percent.
It was the fifth straight monthly sales gain for GM.
TrueCar.com estimates GM's incentives averaged $3,182 per model last month, up 2.7 percent from October 2010 but down 3.3 percent from September.
While Chevrolet Silverado shipments climbed 7 percent to 36,656, GM said its full-size truck inventory rose on a selling-day basis to a 104-day supply, from 88 days at the end of September.
GM's current large pickup lineup is among the oldest in the segment. The automaker has been offering rebates as high as $5,000 on the Silverado and GMC Sierra in recent months.
Despite mixed economic signals and weak consumer confidence levels, analysts had said October U.S. auto sales would reach the highest rate in at least eight months. Those forecasts turned out to be on target.
Light vehicle sales are being aided by pent-up demand from consumers trading in aging vehicles, healthy discounts, wider credit availability, new product offerings and improved inventory among Japanese automakers.
The Ford brand was helped by a 38 percent gain in SUV sales, led by the Explorer and Escape. Ford brand utility vehicles are up 31 percent this year.
Ford's overall car sales slipped 8 percent compared to last year. But in October, the Ford Fiesta, Focus and Fusion each generated higher retail sales than a year earlier, offsetting lower fleet shipments, the automaker said.
Chrysler said it was helped by strong demand for the Chrysler 200 and 300 sedans, the Jeep Compass and Dodge Journey crossovers, the Jeep Liberty SUV, and the Ram pickup truck.
Among the industry's top seven manufacturers, Chrysler offered the highest average incentive last month -- $3,303 -- according to TrueCar.
Volkswagen AG said its results marked its best October since 2001. Sales of the new Passat sedan hit 5,040 units -- the strongest month for the model since December 2005.
TrueCar estimates industry incentives averaged $2,669 per vehicle in October, up slightly from September and almost 5 percent higher than October 2010. Honda and Toyota -- moving to draw buyers back to showrooms as stockpiles rebuild -- were among automakers with the biggest percentage increases from a year ago, TrueCar said.
"Consumers are no longer dragging their feet on new vehicle purchases as they feel the economy is moving in the right direction, " said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.
Severe flooding has interrupted auto parts and vehicle assembly in Thailand and is expected to have a negative impact on U.S. supplies of Asian-brand models in coming months.