Good Month for U.S. Auto Sales

Results due to release of pent-up demand after years of historically low sales .

U.S. auto sales continued to grow in October, with Chrysler the big winner after posting a 27% gain that outpaced single-digit growth at Ford and General Motors and a loss at Toyota.

Analysts attributed much of the improvements to the release of pent-up demand after years of historically low sales and recent supply disruptions.

Total industry sales were up 7.5% from the depressed levels of October 2010 at 1.02 million vehicles, according to Autodata.

October's seasonally-adjusted, annualized rate of 13.26 million vehicles was also an improvement over the 13.1 million rate posted in September and the 12.12 million rate recorded in August, according to Autodata.

"The performance over the past few months is not the start of a trend. It is more of a mini-bubble," said Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of the automotive website Edmunds.com.

Anwyl estimates that people put off buying at least 200,000 vehicles because of the supply shortages and price increases that began in late April, and didn't ease until September as a result of the deadly Japanese quake and tsunami. That should help boost sales for the remainder of the year, but Anwyl cautioned that industry sales remain at historically low levels as a result of the deep economic downturn.

While the underlying core demand for vehicles is "stable" and is being boosted by "better new products," it is nonetheless "improving at a painfully slow rate," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.com.

GM said it expects sales to continue to gradually improve and forecast that total industry sales will hit somewhere in the low end of 13 to 13.5 million vehicles in 2011. "Despite the volatility that continues in the market, we continue to believe that the US economy will grow slowly, with pent-up demand created by four years of below-trend sales," said Don Johnson, who heads GM's US sales.

Annual U.S. auto sales reached 15 to 17 million vehicles for the dozen years leading up to the 2008 crash.

Johnson noted that GM's comparatively weaker performance this month -- with sales up just 2% at 186,895 vehicles -- was due in part to the fact that it performed so well in October 2010.

Its sales for the year to date were up 15.4%at nearly 2.1 million vehicles.

Ford's October sales rose 6.2% to 167,803, while sales for the year to date were up 10.9% at nearly 1.8 million vehicles. "The evidence of September and October is that there is a strong foundation in the US-based automobile industry," said Ken Czubay, who heads Ford's U.S .sales.

"Consumers are coming in with some of their oldest aged and highest mileage trades and the scrappage rate has been very low in the last few years," Czubay said.

Chrysler attributed its strong performance to its revitalized product line. "In what is turning out to be a strong new vehicle sales industry we continued to outperform," said Reid Bigland, who heads Chrysler's U.S.sales. "The month of October also marked our 19th consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains."

October's 27% gain to 114,512 vehicles helped boost Chrysler sales for the year to date by 23% to 1.1 million vehicles.

Toyota continued to struggle as worked to build up supplies of its popular Corolla sedan and switch over to 2012 models. October sales fell 7.8% to 134,046 vehicles, while Toyota's sales for the year to date were down 8.8% at 1.3 million vehicles.

But the Japanese automaker managed to improve its market share by 1.6 points compared with September, and said it expects to be able to post a sales gain for the fourth quarter.

"Going forward, the shortages are really behind us," said Bob Carter, Toyota's U.S. sales manager. "We're back in business and we're ready to have fun again."

Honda saw sales slip 0.5% in October to 98,333 vehicles while Nissan, which did not face major supply shortages in the wake of the March quake, continued to post strong gains with sales up 18% to 82,346 vehicles.

Hyundai also extended its gains, with sales up 22.8% at 52,402 vehicles in October while Kia's sales grew 18.4% to 35,609 vehicles.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011

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