The auto industry continued along its road to recovery from its worst year in nearly three decades as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group reported selling more vehicles in September than a year earlier.
GM, the nation's largest automaker, saw its new vehicle sales in the U.S. increase 12% to 173,031. Ford saw its sales jump 46% to 160,375, and Chrysler sold 100,077 vehicles, up 61%.
The rise was expected because auto sales fell sharply in September 2009 with the end of the popular "cash for clunkers" program that had driven up sales in the prior months.
"There were crickets at the dealership when that program ended," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst at TrueCar Inc., a Santa Monica auto sales and pricing information company. "Now we're seeing signs of life. But the industry is not coming back as fast as we predicted."
Autodata Corp. said new vehicles are selling at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 11.8 million vehicles, well over the pace of 9.4 million from September of last year. But it's only a slight uptick from this August's rate.
"We haven't seen a major improvement in macroeconomic numbers, hence the lack of a blockbuster recovery in auto sales," Toprak said.
The growth might be sluggish, but it does exist, Don Johnson, GM's vice president of U.S. sales, said in a conference call with analysts Friday.
"We don't think it's going to bust loose," he said. "Consumers are willing to spend, albeit cautiously."
The Detroit automaker sold about 100,000 more vehicles through September than a year earlier, with four fewer brands. Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn and Saab were sold off or closed as part of its bankruptcy reorganization last year.
Total combined sales for GM's remaining brands — Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac — were up 22% from September 2009, the company said.
Still, the automaker's sales were about 6.5% slower than in the prior month. September is traditionally a lower selling month than August, Johnson said.
Ford, however, saw sales climb 4.8% from August.
"Ford bucked a trend this month," said Ivan Drury, an analyst at auto information company Edmunds.com. "Typically, sales fall about 20% from August to September."
The Dearborn, Mich., automaker's year-to-date sales totaled 1.4 million, up 21% from the same period last year.
Sales of Ford's Fusion sedan jumped 48%, and its Escape SUV was up 65% — both September sales records.
Ford's truck sales surged 43%, due in part to an incentive program that continues through the end of October. Sales of its F-series truck rose 40%, totaling 47,433.
George Pipas, the company's U.S. sales analyst, said continued growth in sales of full-size pickup trucks would depend on rebounding "residential construction and improvement in the economy."
Meanwhile, Chrysler saw its year-over-year sales rise for the sixth consecutive month. The Auburn Hills, Mich., company has 16 all-new or refreshed vehicles to be introduced by year's end.
Toyota Motor Corp., the world's largest automaker, said Friday that its September sales were up 17% from last year. It sold 147,162 vehicles in September. The Toyota brand, which has been beleaguered by ongoing mass recalls, was up nearly 21%. The Japanese company's luxury Lexus brand, which also underwent safety recalls, was down 6% to 16,948 sales.
Sales of Toyota's Tacoma pickup truck surged 18% over last year, and the Tundra was up 10%.
Robert S. Carter, Toyota division general manager, said the company was "encouraged, but the pickup-truck market still has a long ways to go."