Editor's note: U.S. sales results for Volvo were misstated in an earlier version of a chart accompanying this story.
U.S. light-vehicle sales -- fueled by robust demand for trucks, crossovers and SUVs -- rose 1.6 percent last month from a strong May 2014, bucking projections for a modest decline in volume.
Fiat Chrysler, Honda, General Motors, Kia and Subaru generated U.S. sales increases in May while Ford, Nissan, Toyota and Hyundai fell as the industry enjoyed the strongest pace of sales in nearly a decade.
More cars and trucks were sold last month -- 1,634,952 -- than in any May ever.
The seasonally adjusted sales rate surged to 17.78 million from 16.52 million in April and 16.73 million in May 2014. That’s the highest mark since the Detroit 3’s employee-pricing deals drove a SAAR of 20.64 million in July 2005.
Analysts had projected the SAAR to rise to 17.3 million last month.
The results bolster projections that U.S. light-vehicle sales will top 17 million this year for the first time since 2001.
"Car buyers continue to pay more for vehicles and mitigate that cost with longer loan terms and low interest rates,” said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with Edmunds.com. “With available longer loan terms, lower interest rates and abundant lease deals, people really are getting get more car for the money."
U.S. light-truck deliveries, led by crossovers, pickups, midsize SUVs and large, premium SUVs, continue to drive the market by rising 6.9 percent last month and 10 percent year-to-date. Sales of cars continued to struggle, with volume down 3.7 percent in May and off 1.3 percent for the year.
Sales at FCA US rose 4.1 percent from May 2014 levels as the automaker tallied its 62nd straight advance. GM, aided by truck- and crossover-brand GMC, climbed 3 percent.
The Volkswagen brand chalked up a rare monthly gain, up 8.1 percent. American Honda benefited from a strong performance at Acura in tallying a 1.3 percent increase.
Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, dropped 1.3 percent. Nissan Group and Toyota Motor Corp. each recorded declines of less than 1 percent. Toyota's drop marked its first setback in more than a year.
At Ford, volume at the Ford division slipped 1.5 percent on weaker output of F-series pickups. Lincoln posted a 3.7 percent gain. Ford Motor Co.’s retail sales fell 2 percent, while fleet sales were flat, the automaker said.
At FCA, volume rose 32 percent at the Chrysler brand, 14 percent at Jeep, and 12 percent at Ram.
Dodge slid 22 percent while Fiat fell 19 percent. Dodge volume has been hurt by the discontinuation of the Avenger midsize sedan and brief suspension of Caravan minivan output to retool an assembly plant in Canada.
Overall, Chrysler’s car sales rose 27 percent while light truck deliveries slipped 2 percent.
Most GM brands were in break-even territory. Buick eked out a 0.5 percent increase while Chevrolet was up 1.4 percent. Cadillac fell 1.9 percent.
GMC, General Motors’ second-biggest brand by volume, scored a 13 percent advance, thanks mainly to the Acadia and the new Canyon mid-sized pickup. The automaker said its retail sales rose 7 percent.
Volkswagen’s boost came primarily from the Golf family, which more than tripled its sales from May 2014. Sister brand Audi extended its industry-leading streak of monthly increases to 67 with an 11 percent advance.
At Nissan, where CEO Carlos Ghosn is pushing for a 10 percent share of the U.S. market, sales by the namesake division fell 1 percent. Infiniti luxury sales rose 0.9 percent, though, for an overall corporate decline of 0.9 percent.
Overall, Toyota Motor Corp.'s sales slipped 0.3 percent. It was the company's first monthly decline since February 2014. Volume rose 10 percent at Lexus but slid 1 percent at Toyota and 22 percent at Scion.
Among other automakers, volume rose 12 percent at Subaru, 19 percent at Land Rover, 32 percent at Mitsubishi and 0.2 percent at Volvo. Subaru's U.S. sales have now increased 42 consecutive months and topped 40,000 units for 15 straight months.
Kia set a monthly U.S. sales record with volume of 62,433, or 3.9 percent higher than May 2014. It was also the second month the brand's U.S. deliveries have topped 60,000.
Porsche reported a 7.4 percent decline in May deliveries, and volume dipped 0.4 percent at Mazda and 7.7 percent at Jaguar.
Deliveries across the industry were forecast to fall 1.1 percent for the month to about 1.59 million cars and light trucks, based on the average estimate from 11 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. There were 26 selling days last month, one fewer than in May 2014.
Light trucks continued to dominate the total vehicle mix as gas prices remain depressed and a strong credit environment makes it easier for customers to opt for larger vehicles, analysts said.
The surge in truck demand has left some automakers scrambling ahead of the summer sales season.
“May proved to be a bit difficult for us as it appears more customers were out looking for big trucks and SUVs than cars,” said Bob Pradzinski, vice-president of national sales at Hyundai Motor America. “We’re putting plans in place to make sure our dealers are best equipped to get the right mix of vehicles into customers’ hands during the popular summer selling months.”
Kelley Blue Book estimates the average transaction price for light vehicles sold in May was $33,363. That’s up by $1,363, or 4.3 percent, from May 2014, but down $130, or 0.4 percent, from April.
“With the national average price of gasoline down nearly a dollar per gallon on average from one year ago, truck and SUV demand remains strong, elevating average transaction prices, especially for domestic automakers, in May,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “We also saw incentives spending remain nearly flat in May, which shows the strength of the overall new-car market.”
May sales were stoked by Memorial Day holiday deals that were offered over two successive weekends.
Edmunds.com estimates that 9.5 percent of U.S. buyers who financed a new vehicle in May received a zero-percent loan -- the highest percentage since September.
Dave Versical and Nick Bunkley contributed to this report.