DETROIT -- U.S. auto sales -- led by big gains at Chrysler Group, Hyundai-Kia, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen -- rose 14 percent last month for their biggest increase since April.
On a seasonally adjusted annual basis, sales reached 13.6 million units last month. That was the highest since August 2009, when U.S. cash-for-clunkers incentives revived demand following the bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors.
"The industry sales rate has exceeded 13 million in each of the last three months," said Ken Czubay, head of U.S. marketing, sales and service for Ford. "This suggests the current momentum is not an aberration. We believe replacement demand will continue to support stronger levels in 2012."
Analysts had expected a SAAR in the 13.45 million range, up from October's 13.26 million. The SAAR had peaked this year at 13.29 million in February, before the March earthquake in Japan took steam out of the recovery.
U.S. auto sales have advanced 10 percent to 11.5 million units this year through November and are forecast to hit about 12.8 million units for the year. That would mark the second straight annual increase of more than 1 million units since 2009, when sales plunged to 27-year lows.
On a volume basis, it was the industry's best November since 2007 and raised hopes the recovery -- interrupted by the March earthquake in Japan and threatened by economic jitters -- will gain speed the remainder of the year and into 2012.
Chrysler Group sales soared 45 percent, their biggest monthly increase since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009. Similar advances were seen at Mercedes-Benz, up 46 percent, and the Volkswagen brand, up 41 percent.
Shoppers coming back
Hyundai and Kia also did better in November than they have for the year. Hyundai climbed 22 percent and Kia jumped 39 percent.
A 7 percent gain at GM was helped by strong demand for big pickups and smaller cars such as the Chevrolet Sonic and Cruze. Still, it was one of GM's weakest performances of the year. Chevy and GMC were up; Buick and Cadillac fell.
"We are seeing a broad spectrum of customers return to the market," said Don Johnson, head of GM's U.S. sales operations.
At Ford Motor Co., sales advanced 13 percent, their biggest gain since April, with volume at the Ford division up 20 percent.
Toyota Motor Corp., finally rebounding from the March earthquake in Japan, posted its first monthly gain in U.S. sales since April. The Toyota and Lexus brands each rose 7 percent.
Nissan Motor Co. said its sales rose 19 percent last month, helped by a 22 percent increase at the Nissan division.
Honda Motor Co., still reeling from earthquake-related inventory shortages, was the only major automaker to post a decline in U.S. volume last month. It said sales dropped 10 percent when factoring the difference in selling days last month vs. November 2010. Its unadjusted demand fell 6 percent.
Ford hikes output
U.S. auto sales have advanced 10 percent to 11.5 million units this year through November and are forecast to hit 12.8 million units for all of 2011.
Ford plans to build 675,000 vehicles in North America during the first quarter of 2012, up 3 percent compared with the first quarter of 2011. The automaker also plans to produce 674,000 vehicles in the fourth quarter of 2011, an increase of 14,000 units from a previous forecast.
Hyundai -- helped by new or redesigned models such as the Accent subcompact, Elantra compact and Veloster sport hatchback -- said its sales rose 22 percent last month. The Korean automaker said annual sales of the Sonata topped 200,000 units for the first time.
Several automakers -- notably Toyota and Lexus -- launched year- end sales promotions earlier.
The average incentive per new car or light truck was estimated at $2,534 for November, an increase of 2.5 percent from the previous month but down 0.5 percent from November 2010, according to TrueCar.com, an online shopping site.
"Every major automaker increased incentives this month compared to last month as they are looking to push auto sales and finish the year strong," said Kristen Andersson, an analyst at TrueCar.com, said before month's end.
Higher transaction prices
TrueCar estimated today that the average transaction price for a new car or light vehicle sold in the U.S. market was $30,317 last month, an increase of $1,163 -- or 4 percent -- from November 2010 and up $164 -- or 0.5 percent -- from October 2011.
"Transaction prices have been creeping back up after a slight decline in August with average new vehicle prices over $30K," TrueCar analyst Jesse Toprak said in a statement. "We are going to see automakers really push incentives in December to finish the year off strong."
Consumer confidence has rebounded to its highest level since July and Americans appear to be in a mood to spend based on Thanksgiving holiday shopping levels.
Auto sales have also been aided by more a favorable lending environment and the nation's aging light vehicle fleet. The average car or light truck on the road today is nearly 11 years old and many consumers have reached the point where they need to replace their vehicle, analysts say.
However, the weak housing market and high unemployment continue to be a drag on the broader U.S. economy.
Small cars, entry-level crossovers, full-sized vans and traditional SUVs continued to sell well last month. GM said Chevy Silverado pickup sales rose 28 percent last month. At Nissan, demand for the Versa subcompact climbed 38 percent and Sentra compact sales rose 35 percent.
Analysts expect U.S. light vehicle sales to continue rebounding in the coming months as Japanese automakers rebuild stockpiles following the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
"For the remainder of the year, inventory restoration is the key to stronger light vehicle sales," said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Subaru, also hurt by short supplies, said November sales dropped 15 percent and are down 2 percent for the year, threatening its string of annual sales gains in the United States.
On Friday of last week, the automaker also suspended sales of 2012 Impreza, Legacy and Outback models following customer complaints about increased brake-pedal travel.
Japanese automakers started November with 622,600 units in stock, up from 575,600 units in early October and 527,800 units on Sept. 1, according to the Automotive News data center.
"We've had the interest, but haven't had the inventory," said Bill Piercey, a Honda and Toyota dealer based in Westminster, Calif. "Attitudes are changing and the market feels better."
Subaru, Honda, and Toyota, stymied by a shortage of cars and light truck models, are the only major automakers to post sales declines and market share losses in the United States this year.
Honda's November sales fell 10 percent to 83,925 vehicles as the automaker continued to suffer from the impact of the March earthquake in Japan and flooding in Thailand.
The automaker says its year to date U.S. sales have dropped 6 percent to 1,042,055.
"The impact of the Thailand flooding on our North American production levels continued to be felt in November," John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president of sales, said in a statement. "We're looking forward to closing the year on a strong note as production recovers and the all-new CR-V goes on sale this month."