Editor's note: An earlier version of this story overstated January's seasonally adjusted annual sales rate.
Boom. February U.S. auto sales soared 16 percent over a strong year-ago period to the fastest selling rate in four years. The performance exceeded analysts' and automakers' forecasts.
Sales of 1,149,432 light vehicles pushed February's seasonally adjusted annual selling rate to 15.1 million, well above January's 14.2 million SAAR and the highest since February 2008.
Earlier this week, analysts tracking early February sales had forecast selling rates between 13.8 million and 14.3 million.
A late-month surge in retail sales exceeded "everybody's expectations," said Toyota brand General Manager Bob Carter.
"Three things are driving the market: the economy is getting better, job reports are getting better [and] consumer confidence is getting better," he said in a conference call today. And rising fuel prices "are pulling ahead some volume we wouldn't see until later in the year."
Big players, some big gains
All major players increased February volume, although General Motors may not have had a positive month if Leap Year hadn't added a day to the calendar.
-- GM eked out a 1 percent increase over a year earlier. But other numbers merited attention. The company slashed incentives by $720 per vehicle. GM had spent an average $3,732 last February, which help boost volume 46 percent then. GM spent 19 percent less on spiffs this year -- while increasing average transaction prices 6 percent to $33,086, said TrueCar.com.
-- Chrysler Group sales soared 40 percent, with double-digit growth at every division and Chrysler brand volume more than doubling.
-- Ford Motor Co. gained 14 percent. Lincoln sales rose 16 percent, only the second positive month since September.
-- Nissan North America boosted volume 16 percent, its ninth straight monthly gain. Nissan rose 17 percent while Infiniti was up 1 percent.
-- Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. increased volume 12 percent, led by a 21 percent gain at Lexus division. Toyota/Scion sales rose 12 percent.
-- Similarly, American Honda sales grew 12 percent in February, the second straight month both it and Toyota posted gains, which suggests the two automakers have overcome U.S. inventory shortages stemming from the March 2010 Japan earthquake and autumn Thailand flooding. Honda brand gained 13 percent in February and Acura 4 percent.
-- Hyundai-Kia Automotive gained 26 percent, for its 18th straight monthly gain. The Kia brand was up 37 percent and Hyundai 18 percent.
Small players, some bigger gains
Among the smaller players, five automakers racked up February sales gains of more than 30 percent. Mitsubishi was the only loser, down 31 percent.
-- Suzuki rebounded from four straight monthly declines with a 48 percent increase in February, cutting its net volume loss for the first two months to 7 percent.
-- Volkswagen of America jumped 34 percent. A 43 percent gain at the VW brand overshadowed Audi's 10 percent increase.
-- Both Mazda and Jaguar Land Rover surged 32 percent in February. At the British automaker, Jaguar sales were up 48 percent and Land Rover 27 percent.
-- German luxury automakers also did well. BMW Group gained 31 percent, with BMW brand up 29 percent and Mini 42 percent. Daimler AG rose 18 percent, led by a 59 percent jump for Smart and 17 percent growth for Mercedes-Benz.
-- Subaru posted a 17 percent gain. For the year, its sales are up 19 percent.
-- Volvo Cars volume increased 10 percent on increased sales of the 60 series car and XC90 SUV.
-- Porsche sales rose 6 percent, led by the hot-selling 911 Carrera.
Other February highlights
Small fuel-efficient cars did well as fuel-pump prices rose. Among individual winners: Ford Focus sales more than doubled to 23,350, the Toyota Prius hybrid jumped 52 percent, and the Honda Civic was up 42 percent.
Total car sales rose 22 percent to 618,915 units. That was the highest February total since 2002's 643,042, reflecting the public shift away from light trucks.
But trucks gained 9 percent to 530,517 units in February. That was the highest total for the month since 2008.
Even full-sizes pickups did well in February. The Ford F-series remained America's best-selling nameplate with volume of 47,273 units, up 26 percent. The Chevrolet Silverado gained 2 percent to 32,297 units, while the Ram pickup jumped 21 percent to 22,595 units.
Signs of a fuel-efficient model surge in February
-- Ford Focus sales more than doubled to 23,350, putting it ahead of the similar-sized Chevrolet Cruze (20,427) and Toyota Corolla (22,148) and the larger, ever-popular Honda Accord (20,702).
-- Toyota Prius hybrid sales jumped 52 percent to 20,589, meaning it outsold popular conventional mid-sized sedans Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata -- and came within 113 units of passing the Honda Accord.
-- Honda Civic sales bounced 42 percent to 27,087 units.