Subaru, Volkswagen, BMW, and Toyota led the U.S. auto industry to a tepid 7 percent sales gain in October, as Hurricane Sandy stifled month-end deliveries in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
The seasonally adjusted annualized sales rate slipped to 14.3 million, from September's 14.9 million figure -- the highest since early 2008. Before Sandy hit three days ago, analysts had predicted a SAAR in the 14.8 million to 14.9 million range. A year ago, the SAAR was 13.4 million.
Despite the impact of the storm on October results, and mixed economic signals, automakers remain upbeat and expect to recover any lost sales in November or later.
"Year over year, the light vehicle selling rate has increased for eight consecutive quarters without a tailwind from the residential housing sector but that is starting to change," said Kurt McNeil, head of U.S. sales operations for GM, which posted a sales increase of 5 percent. "If these trends continue, housing may be the final piece of the puzzle that lifts sales above 15 million units on an annual basis."
Automakers produced U.S. sales of 1.1 million last month and remain on track to surpass 14 million units for the year. Overall, light vehicle demand has climbed 14 percent this year to 11.99 million units through October.
The VW Group posted a 22 percent increase, helped by new models such as the Passat, but it was its smallest gain for the VW brand in 14 months. The German automaker said more than 25 percent of its U.S. dealerships were affected by the storm that hit the Eastern seaboard on Oct. 29.
Subaru, a brand with a strong market presence in the Northeast, managed to post a 30 percent gain in sales last month.
A 21 percent gain at the BMW brand helped the BMW Group to a 19 percent increase last month.
Toyota Motor Sales' 16 percent advance followed increases that had averaged 52 percent over the previous five months.
Chrysler's 10 percent gain was its smallest since May 2011.
Sandy, which churned through an area that generates about 25 percent of U.S. auto sales, disrupted dealers at the month's end, when car buying tends to accelerate.
In addition to Subaru, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions are major markets for Jeep and many import brands.
Chrysler attributed a 5 percent drop in Jeep sales last month in part on the hurricane. It was the first decline in volume at the SUV brand since January 2010. Chrysler's Fiat brand rose 89 percent.
GM officials said today half of the company's 80 dealerships in New Jersey, where damage is extensive, are still without electricity.
Toyota said sales at the Toyota Division climbed 16 percent while Lexus volume advanced 10 percent.
"Despite the impact of Sandy, October was a solid month for Toyota and the industry, and we look for the market to remain strong in the months ahead," said Bob Carter, Toyota's chief of automotive operations.
At American Honda, October sales rose 9 percent, its smallest gain of the last six months, as the automaker continues to recover from 2011, when Japan's earthquake and tsunami crippled output.
Accord deliveries led all Honda vehicles in October with sales of 28,349 units, a 25 percent gain compared with the year prior. Honda said output of the redesigned 2013 Accord continues to ramp up.
"The strong momentum of Honda sales continues despite the end-of-month timing of Hurricane Sandy," said John Mendel, American Honda's head of sales. "With sales of the all-new Accord building each month, we look forward to Honda's solid end-of-year finish."
Nissan North America's 3 percent decline for October marked its worst month since May of 2011, when vehicle supplies were crimped following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
"Unfortunately, October ended on a down note with Hurricane Sandy causing major disruption throughout the Northeast, which is our strongest performing region with more than 225 area dealers," said Al Castignetti, vice president of the Nissan Division.
Nissan and its Infiniti luxury brand will be offering employee discounts and employee financing to eligible residents in FEMA disaster areas.
GM's gain was led by a 15 percent increase at both Buick and Cadillac. Sales at Chevrolet, GM's biggest division, rose 4 percent while GMC deliveries advanced 6 percent.
Sales of GM passenger cars, aided by new models, advanced 15 percent in October compared with a year ago. Sales of GM's crossovers were up 3 percent and demand for full-sized pickup trucks rose 8 percent.
GM sales to retail customers were up 7 percent while fleet deliveries dropped 2 percent.
Ford said its sales were mostly flat for the second month in a row, with the Ford division up 1 percent but Lincoln deliveries down 15 percent in October. Ford's retail sales rose 2 percent compared with last year.
Chrysler said a few dozen dealers in the region were forced to close for a day or more because of a loss of power or clean up efforts.
"Obviously, sales are postponed and these sales come back relatively quick after housing stabilizes," said Ken Czubay, Ford's head of U.S. marketing, sales and service.
Czubay said there are a significant number of vehicles partially or completely damaged by water, and that Ford expects consumers to use insurance proceeds to buy new vehicles.
Hyundai reported a 4 percent drop in October sales because of Hurricane Sandy and tight Accent and Veloster supplies.
Many dealerships in New Jersey and New York remain without power and are closed, the National Automobile Dealers Association said Wednesday.
Demand for small, fuel-efficient cars and crossovers is driving the industry's sales gains, analysts say.
Ford's small car sales total 25,493 vehicles last month -- its strongest October small car sales in 11 years -- and an increase of 54 percent over last year.
GM said today it was increasing its year-end inventory target from about 650,000 units, to 660,000 to 670,000 units. The change reflects higher planned stockpiles of new passenger cars, the company said, while GM's truck inventory target will remain the same.
Easing credit terms, low interest rates, pent-up demand and new or redesigned models are also enticing American consumers to purchase new cars and light trucks despite sluggish economic growth and high gasoline prices.
TrueCar estimates October incentives averaged $2,353 per model across the industry, down 2.9 percent from September and a drop of 5.6 percent from October 2011.
Fleet and retail deliveries are expected to decline from September levels because of lower incentives and the end of many model-year clearance sales, Kelley Blue Book said.
Bloomberg contributed to this report