Rising demand for Detroit 3 pickups helped lift U.S. auto sales 9 percent last month, while surprising declines at Toyota and Volkswagen took some steam out of the market's steady recovery.
The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate came in at 14.9 million, marking the first time since October that the SAAR failed to top 15 million.
Strong demand for large pickups and new models propelled Nissan Motor Co., Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Chrysler Group to double-digit sales gains in April.
Among other major automakers, Honda Motor Co. and the Hyundai-Kia Group posted smaller gains. Toyota Motor Corp. posted a sales decline for the first time in 18 months, and Volkswagen Group dropped for the first time in 31 months.
U.S. car and light truck sales were forecast to climb 11 percent for the month to 1.31 million, based on the average estimate of nine analysts polled by Bloomberg.
The SAAR had been forecast to rise to 15.2 million from 14.1 million in April 2012.
Light-truck demand rose 11 percent last month, outpacing the 3 percent gain in car deliveries. Light-truck sales were led by large pickup and small crossover demand, while mini cars and compacts set the pace among car segments.
Overall, sales of large pickups jumped 27 percent last month and have climbed 20 percent this year. The truck market is getting a lift from the steady rebound in U.S. housing and other construction activity.
April is traditionally a strong month and a bellwether for the industry's health.
Luxury gains ground
Many luxury brands easily outperformed the overall market in April. Sales at Infiniti, Cadillac, BMW, Acura, Porsche, Lincoln and Audi all increased 10 percent or more. Mercedes, Lexus and Jaguar Land Rover posted smaller gains, while sales continued to slide at Volvo.
U.S. light-vehicles sales have climbed 7 percent through April, and analysts had seen sales reaching 15.3 million to 15.4 million for the year, up from 14.5 million for all of 2012.
Easing credit conditions, favorable financing, pent-up demand, and new models continue to draw consumers to new-vehicle showrooms.
Still, U.S. job growth remains sluggish enough to prevent a rapid rise in annual light-vehicles sales to 16 million units or more, where the market stayed for nine years starting in 1999, some analysts say.
The Detroit 3 -- benefiting from the rise in light truck demand, notably large pickups and big SUVs -- gained market share again last month.
Ford's April sales climbed 18 percent, fueled by a 21 percent gain in car deliveries and 16 percent increases in utility vehicle and truck volume, the company said today.
Ford division deliveries, bolstered by the redesigned Fusion sedan and Escape crossover, rose 18 percent while Lincoln volume rebounded, rising 21 percent. Sales of the F-series pickup rose 24 percent to 59,030 units.
Retail volume climbed 27 percent last month, Ford said.
"We are working harder than ever to keep pace with record demand for our all-new, fuel-efficient Fusion and Escape -- with sales growth particularly strong on the coasts," Ken Czubay, head of U.S. marketing, sales and service for Ford, said in a statement.
GM reported an 11 percent increase in April sales, with each of the company's four brands posting gains, led by Cadillac, up 34 percent. Sales rose 11 percent at Chevrolet and Buick.
GM said its retail sales rose 10 percent and fleet volume advanced 16 percent.
Demand for the large Chevrolet Silverado pickup climbed 28 percent to 39,395 units.
"Car-buying conditions are strong and will continue to release pent-up demand," said Kurt McNeil, head of U.S. sales operations for GM.
Nissan Motor Co.'s sales rose 23 percent to 87,847, with volume at the Nissan division rising 25 percent and Infiniti deliveries advancing 10 percent.
The company said the increase was driven by strong gains in retail sales of the redesigned Altima mid-sized and Sentra compact sedans, and the Rogue crossover.
Nissan, aiming to pop up in more Internet searches by online shoppers, is also reducing prices on seven of 18 U.S. models.
The price cuts run from 2.7 percent, or $580, on the Altima, to 10.7 percent, or $4,400, on the Armada large SUV, Nissan said. Prices are also being cut on the Sentra, Juke subcompact crossover, Murano mid-sized crossover, Rogue and the Maxima full-sized sedan.
Sales of the Nissan brand had dropped 2 percent this year through March.
"Nissan has made clear they want to gain U.S. share and be more competitive in key segments," said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
Strong sales of the Ram pickup and Dodge models helped Chrysler Group post an 11 percent increase in April sales, extending the automaker's streak of U.S. gains to 37 months.
Car sales rose 5 percent and light-truck demand increased 14 percent, Chrysler said.
The company's sales were led by the Ram brand, up 49 percent on a surge in pickup demand, and Dodge, where deliveries climbed 18 percent.
Ram pickup sales jumped 49 percent to 31,409 units last month, and have advanced 23 percent year-to-date to 109,003 units, Chrysler said.
Sales rose 2 percent at Jeep and 1 percent at Fiat. Volume dropped 13 percent at the Chrysler brand. It was Jeep's first gain after six months of declining sales.
Dodge was aided by the new Dart, with sales of 8,099, and a 65-percent gain for the Durango SUV and double-digit advances for the Journey crossover and Challenger.
VW said sales of its namesake brand dropped 10 percent last month, its first monthly drop since Aug. 2010.
The company cited challenging conditions and competition in the compact and mid-sized car segments for double-digit declines in Passat and Jetta volumes.
Toyota Motor Sales also said its sales fell in April. They were down 1 percent, after rising 9 percent through March.
Sales at the Toyota division slipped 2 percent and the Camry sedan, the top-selling U.S. car for 11 years, was outsold for the second consecutive month, this time by the Accord. Toyota cited lower fleet shipments for the drop in Toyota division volume.
April sales increased 7 percent at Honda Motor Co., with volume at the Honda brand rising 7 percent and Acura deliveries advancing 14 percent. Higher sales of the CR-V crossover, Odyssey minivan and Civic compact were offset by a drop in Accord deliveries, Honda said.
Hyundai Motor America, amid tight supplies, reported April sales rose 2 percent to 63,315.
A slight rise in consumer confidence and lower gasoline prices, compared to April 2012, also lifted sales last month, analysts said.
April sales started strongly with a slight dip around mid-month, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said Monday.
"Leasing activity continued to remain strong while 'cash on the hood' did not increase materially" last month, Jonas said in a report. "Despite declining recently, gas prices remain in a sweet spot to continue to drive sales of new fuel efficient models."