U.S. auto sales rose 4 percent from strong year-ago results in February, as modest growth by the Detroit 3 and Toyota offset declines at Honda, Hyundai-Kia and Nissan.
Along the way, the seasonally adjusted annualized sales rate inched up to 15.4 million, the fourth straight month above 15 million. The industry hasn't seen sustained SAARs at that level since late 2007 and early 2008.
GM sales boss Kurt McNeil noted "fiscal and structural headwinds," but said ample credit and rebounding home prices helped auto sales.
"Consumers appear to be taking higher payroll taxes in stride, at least when it comes to replacing older vehicles," he said.
TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak said the sales growth seemed muted because last February was very strong.
"It shows the path to recovery goes on, just not as robustly as before," he said.
Ford Motor's 9 percent gain and a 7 percent rise at General Motors led the major players. Chrysler Group and Toyota Motor Sales both increased volume 4 percent.
But American Honda fell 2 percent, Hyundai-Kia America 3 percent and Nissan North America dropped 7 percent.
A comparables gotcha: February sales were so good last year, even solid gains this year look anemic by comparison. February 2012 had the strongest selling rate in the first half of the year, with a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 14.5 million.
So this year, even a February SAAR of 15.4 million produces only a single-digit market gain.
It's even tougher for automakers that had a great February last year. "It makes a few look bad because they did so well last year," said analyst Toprak.
Volkswagen brand was up 3 percent in February, but that was coming off a 48 percent jump last February. In 2012 Nissan group had its best-ever February, up 17 percent. This year, sales fell 7 percent.
Chrysler Group was up for the 34rd month in a row, but February's 4 percent is the smallest percentage gain in that entire string. The last one-digit monthly increase: 7 percent in August 2010, coming off the cash for clunkers August spike the year before.
Pickups take off: Full-sized pickup sales jumped 17 percent to 142,494 units in February, echoing the rebound in the U.S. housing industry.
Domestic brands that control 94 percent of the segment led the way. General Motors sold 55,776 Chevy Silverados and GMC Sierras, up 28 percent. "Small business sales were a big part of the truck story," said GM's McNeil. "That's a strong vote of confidence in the underlying economy."
Ford F-series volume rose 15 percent to 54,489 units. Chrysler's Ram pickup rose 3 percent.
Mercedes leads luxury race: Mercedes-Benz maintains a lead on BMW in its race to grab the U.S. luxury-brand sales title from its fellow German rival.
Mercedes (excluding Sprinter vans) outsold BMW last month, 22,040 to 21,311. For the first two months, its lead is almost 7,000 units.
But the closest battle is further down the list, between Audi and Acura. Honda's luxury brand outsold Audi in February, 11,364 to 10,877. But for the first two months, it's Audi by 80 units: 20,933 to 20,853.
Cars flat, trucks gain: Despite rising gasoline prices, light trucks outperformed cars in February. Truck sales rose 8 percent to 574,807 units; car sales were flat at 617,492.
Behind the car woes: Remember that onslaught of new-generation mid-sized sedans that hit the market in the past 16 months? It was a tough February for the whole segment.
The Honda Accord and Ford Fusion were in positive territory, but five other mid-sized models weren’t. That includes double-digit sales drops for the Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu and Nissan Altima and smaller declines for the Hyundai Sonata and Volkswagen Passat.