Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler posted double-digit U.S. sales increases last month as the industry chalked up its strongest February in 15 years.
Total U.S. sales grew 6.8 percent during the month to 1.3 million vehicles -- the best February in volume terms since 2001. The annual adjusted sales rate was 17.53 million, the best rate for a February since 2000. The SAAR a year ago was 16.39 million.
Ford, paced by gains across the board, surged 20 percent. Fiat Chrysler rode strong demand for Rams and Jeeps to a 12 percent increase. Honda said sales improved 13 percent to 118,985 while Nissan said its sales grew 11 percent to 130,911. Both Honda and Nissan said they set records for the month.
General Motors, meanwhile, said sales fell 1.5 percent, a surprising decline that the company attributed to a 39 percent cutback in deliveries to fleet customers. GM said retail sales rose 6.6 percent.
But GM bolstered forecasts of a strong month for the industry, projecting a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 17.7 million -- a figure slightly higher than the average forecast of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.
That would mark the strongest February sales since 2000, when the SAAR came in at 18.9 million.
Toyota Motor Sales said sales grew 4.1 percent to 187,954 vehicles.
“Light trucks continue to drive strong demand in 2016,” Bill Fay, general manager for the Toyota division, said in a statement. "The Toyota division had back-to-back, best-ever light truck monthly records, supported by another best-ever month in February for RAV4 (up 16 percent to 25,523).”
Toyota's luxury brand Lexus said sales inched up 1 percent to 23,234 units, which was good enough to win the monthly luxury sales race over Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
“It wasn’t just a good month for SUVs, however -- IS, CT and RC have exceeded our sales expectations for the month of February," Lexus boss Jeff Bracken said in a statement.
As expected, Volkswagen AG said its VW brand sales plunged during the month, down 13 percent to 22,321 vehicles, in the wake of the company's emissions cheating scandal that emerged last September. But VW's Audi luxury brand remained largely isolated from the scandal, posting a 2.3 percent gain to 11,718 vehicles -- the brand's 62nd consecutive month of record U.S. sales.
FCA US sold 182,879 vehicles last month, its 71st consecutive month of year-over-year sales increases. FCA said its February sales were the highest since 2006.
Leading the way for FCA was the Ram brand, with sales climbing 27 percent, on the strength of a 23 percent climb in Ram pickup sales. Jeep saw a 23 percent increase thanks in part to the addition of the Jeep Renegade to its lineup. The Dodge brand also had a sales increase in February, while the company’s namesake Fiat and Chrysler brands’ sales fell.
Ford said it was the company’s best February ever for crossover and SUV sales, which rose 29 percent to 70,328. Truck sales rose 14 percent, and car sales were up 19 percent.
Only two out of 21 Ford nameplates -- the C-Max compact car and largely discontinued E-series van -- posted declines. The Lincoln brand achieved a 30 percent gain, with sales of the MKX crossover more than doubling from a year ago.
On the truck said, F-series sales increased 10 percent to 60,697 units.
GM's report was led by Buick's 2.3 percent improvement, paced by the Encore's 19 percent boost. Cadillac sales increased 1 percent, led by Escalade's 22 percent boost.
“Our strategy is simple: grow profitable retail share while maintaining discipline with inventory levels and incentive spending, while reducing rental deliveries,” Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. vice president of sales operations, said in a statement.
Including fleet, sales were down 5 percent for the Chevrolet Silverado, 8.7 percent for the Equinox and 29 percent for the Cruze.
The Chevrolet brand was down 0.7 percent overall but up 13 percent on a retail basis. GMC sales were down 6.8 percent.
Meanwhile, Nissan division sales improved 13 percent while Infiniti dropped 11 percent. Bucking the trends toward trucks and SUVs, Nissan division said car sales rose 12 percent, led by the Sentra's 34 percent bump to 20,599 units sold. Altima sales fell slightly.
Hyundai reported sales of 53,009 vehicles during the month -- a February record and a 1 percent gain over the same month last year.
South Korean sister automaker Kia said its sales rose 13 percent to 49,737 vehicles.
Subaru continued its monthly winning streak to 51 with a 1.6 percent gain to 42,011 vehicles delivered. Forester SUV sales remained strong with a 6.8 percent improvement to 12,239 units.
In the luxury segment, Mercedes said sales fell 2.9 percent to 22,941 vehicles, putting the Daimler luxury brand behind Lexus for the month.
BMW said its brand sales dropped 11 percent to 22,498 vehicles, placing it third. Truck sales, led by the X1 crossover, bumped up 7 percent while car sales deteriorated 19 percent. Mini brand sales decreased 24 percent.
Volvo posted the highest percentage gain in the luxury segment with sales rising 31 percent to 5,260 vehicles. Land Rover said sales gained 30 percent to 6,417 units.
Presidents Day sales
U.S. auto sales, after being slowed in January by winter storms, were on pace to reach the highest level for any February since 2000, analysts said.
Purchases delayed from January and a bevy of Presidents Day deals were expected to have stepped February sales up for almost all automakers.
Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News predicted an average increase of 1.2 million units to the seasonally adjusted, annualized selling rate from February 2015 of 16.4 million.
Even though last month was the once-a-quadrennial February with 29 days on the calendar, automakers received no advantage in selling days. Last month and February 2015 both had 24.
But analysts predicted that the vast majority of automakers didn’t need a leap day to post good results for February.
A survey of a dozen automotive analysts conducted by Bloomberg News showed a consensus that the Detroit 3, American Honda, Nissan North America, Toyota Motor Sales and Hyundai/Kia would all report sales growth today for February. In addition, the analysts pointed to an average gain of 1.2 million units in the SAAR to 17.6 million units.
Analysts had predicted that Ford would show the biggest gains among major automakers in February, but the automaker far exceeded the average forecast of 12.6 percent. GM was expected to post a 5.6 percent gain, while trouble-plagued Volkswagen was expected to record a 1.1 percent decline.
“Consumers seem to be shrugging off the volatility in the stock market and higher interest rates. Very low fuel prices and many new vehicles in showrooms should help drive another strong year for auto sales,” Jeff Schuster, LMC’s senior vice president of forecasting, said in a statement.
January and February are typically the two weakest months of the year. Since 1989, February sales have been an average of 13 percent better than January. Sales tend to pick up significantly in March as the traditional spring selling season begins.
Long loans and leases are expected to account for a record 65.1 percent of all retail sales in February, up from 64.3 percent in January, according to J.D. Power, which works with LMC to forecast sales. Power said consumers were expected to spend more than $32 billion on new vehicles this month -- a February record and up $3 billion from a year ago.
Gasoline prices continued falling in February, driving sales of pickups and SUVs higher and forcing automakers to raise incentives on car nameplates to keep inventories from piling up.
Nick Bunkley contributed to this report.