Sales of Ford's F-Series truck rose 30.6% during May to nearly 72,000,… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
Auto sales rose in May, helped by stronger consumer confidence and a rebound in home sales and construction.
A strong Memorial Day weekend and especially brisk truck sales helped the industry beat expectations.
"There was some concern last month when sales fell off a bit in April," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com.
Automakers sold a little more than 1.4 million vehicles last month, about an 8.2% gain from May a year earlier.
As they have for much of the year, sales of big pickup trucks continued to pace the industry, pushing the average price of a vehicle sold last month to $30,978, up $618,or 2%, from the same month a year earlier, according to estimates by auto price information company TrueCar.com.
Truck sales have been riding a new wave of home construction for several months now, but truck spending is now increasing in other industries as well, said Ford Motor Co. sales chief Ken Czubay.
Both Ford and General Motors Co. noted that truck sales were strong in the oil patch states of North Dakota and Texas. Small businesses, including florists, landscapers, electricians and heating and air-conditioning companies also have increased their purchases of trucks and vans, said Ed Peper, GM's vice president of fleet and commercial sales.
Sales of Ford's F-Series truck rose 30.6% during the month to nearly 72,000, leading all vehicles of any type. Sales of Chevrolet's Silverado pickup rose more than 25%. The gain at GM came even though it sliced $940 off the sales incentive it offered on its trucks compared with April. Chrysler Group sales of its Ram truck brand rose 22%, its best May in six years.
GM, the nation's largest automaker, saw its total U.S. sales rise 3.1% in May to 252,894 vehicles compared with the same month a year earlier, according to Autodata Corp. It was the company's best month since September 2008.
"The gradual recovery in the economy is becoming more broad-based," said Kurt McNeil, vice president of U.S. sales operations.
Ford sales rose 14.1% to 246,019 vehicles, its best May since 2006. Chrysler sales rose 11% to 166,596 vehicles last month. It was the automaker's highest May sales since 2007.
Toyota Motor Corp. U.S. sales rose 2.5% to 207,952 vehicles in May compared with the same month a year earlier.
"New vehicle sales are heating up along with the weather, and solid May results coupled with an excellent Memorial Day weekend provide great momentum as we move into the summer selling season," said Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of Toyota's sales arm.
Honda sales rose 4.5% to 140,013 vehicles. Nissan said its U.S. sales, including its Infiniti luxury brand, rose 24.7% to 114,457 vehicles in May. It was the Nissan brand's best May ever in the U.S., but Infiniti sales were down by more than 25%.
Subaru of America said it logged sales of 39,892 vehicles last month, a 34.2% gain and its best month ever in the U.S.
Among the notable trends showing up in May's sales figures is a big gain for Ford in coastal areas such as California, regions where it has long lagged the import brands. Ford's retail market share year-to-date — vehicles sold to consumers rather than commercial customers and car rental companies — is approaching 8.5% in California, an increase of two percentage points over the last year and more than double 2007, Czubay said.
"It has a lot to do with the type of cars they are selling now," Caldwell said. "Smaller cars like the Focus, Fusion and Escape tend to sell well in the cities, and then you have the whole agricultural industry in California as a big source of truck sales."
A big push into hybrid cars, which are popular in the high-gas-price California market also has helped Ford. It sold more than 3,700 of its new C-Max hybrids nationally last month, including about 900 in California.
The Volkswagen brand, which has seen sales surge in recent years thanks to redesigned models such as its Jetta and Passat sedans, was the only major company to post a decline in May. Sales of the brand fell 1.7% to 38,013 vehicles last month. More recent offerings by its rivals and the lack of a truck for the American market have allowed competitors to grab back market share, Caldwell said.
Jonathan Browning, chief executive of Volkswagen of America, said the brand needs another high volume selling vehicle and mentioned that VW is working on a mid-size sport utility that could fill that spot.
Including its Audi division, Volkswagen sales rose 2.2% to 51,499.
Electric car sales continued to grow slowly.
Tesla sold 1,425 vehicles last month and has sold 7,506 so far this year, according to Autodata Corp. Since the Tesla Model S is a new car, there are no comparison figures from a year ago.
Meanwhile, GM sold 1,607 Volts last month and 7,157 so far this year, a 1.4% gain from the first five months of last year. Nissan sold 2,138 Leafs last month and 7,614 this year, up 191.4% from a year ago.