Both fleet and retail volume contributed to unexpectedly strong new-vehicle sales last month.
For the top seven carmakers, sales to commercial, government and daily rental fleets rose 18 percent over February 2011 to 213,700 units while retail volume increased 14 percent to 780,600 units.
Chrysler Group, February's big gainer in total sales, boosted retail volume 41 percent but also increased fleet sales by 39 percent. Fleet sales accounted for 33 percent of total sales last month.
Ford Motor Co and Hyundai-Kia Automotive volume skewed strongly toward retail while Nissan North America, Toyota Motor Sales and General Motors drove growth through higher fleet sales. Nissan's fleet volume jumped 39 percent compared with February 2011, raising its fleet mix from 20 percent to 24 percent. Toyota's fleet sales rose 28 percent and pushed its mix from 14 percent last February to 16 percent last month. Retail sales for both companies rose 10 percent.
Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter said the higher fleet volume in January and February is temporary.
"That's slightly higher than normal as we work with our fleet customers to make good on deliveries we delayed last year while we were rebuilding our retail inventories," he said. "This process will continue in March, but by the end of the year our fleet sales will again be less than 10 percent of total sales."
GM needed its 20 percent fleet growth to turn a 4 percent drop in retail sales into an overall gain of 1 percent in February. U.S. sales boss Don Johnson said GM fleet demand, which accounted for 27 percent of the company's sales mix in the first two months, is strongest among commercial buyers as the housing industry shows signs of life.
"We can start to see clear evidence of this stronger sentiment and optimism in our commercial fleet sales," Johnson said. Without naming Toyota and Nissan, he added: "A number of our competitors are making good on some daily-rental commitments from 2011."
In February, Ford increased fleet sales 5 percent and retail 19 percent. Hyundai-Kia slashed fleet 33 percent to just 7,300 units or 8 percent of its sales mix. Its retail volume jumped 36 percent.
Overall, U.S. light-vehicle sales gained 16 percent in February from a year earlier. The seasonally adjusted annual selling rate jumped to 15.1 million, up from 13.3 million a year earlier and well ahead of analysts' expectations of milder gains.