Consumers streamed into auto dealers last month, pushing industry sales to their highest level for an August in 11 years.
Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai all posted gains while General Motors and Volkswagen saw sales slip, according to monthly figures reported Wednesday.
"It was a fabulous month for the industry," said John Krafcik, president of car shopping company TrueCar Inc. Automakers sold nearly 1.6 million vehicles in the U.S. in August, a 5.5% increase from the same period a year earlier, according to Autodata Corp. August sales surpassed last year's total.
Auto sales are on track to exceed 16 million this year for the first time since 2007, said Michael Ward, an analyst with investment house Sterne Agee. U.S. light-vehicle sales exceeded 16 million units every year from 1999 to 2007 but plummeted as the nation headed into the Great Recession.
Favorable lending rates, an improving economy and a large number of vehicles coming off leases are supporting demand for new vehicles, Ward said.
"The industry has a lot of momentum," said Bill Fay, Toyota's U.S. sales chief.
Consumer confidence is up, interest rates are stable and fuel prices have eased, setting up a "close to perfect" environment for sales, Fay said.
August sales also were pushed by dealers who need to clear out 2014 models before new models arrive, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto shopping company Edmunds.com.
"TV and radio airwaves are filled with these clearance deals, and they're helping to push hesitant car shoppers into 'buy now' mode," she said.
Sales over the holiday weekend helped.
"Our Labor Day sale was huge," said Beau Boeckmann, president of Galpin Motors Inc., which owns nine Southern California auto franchises, including Galpin Ford, the largest Ford dealer in the nation. "We were a little bit worried about the month, but it turned out to be really strong."
Car dealers are having their best year since the recession, Boeckmann said. Buyers are snapping up trucks, sport-utility vehicles and crossovers.
That trend helped Chrysler sell 198,379 vehicles in the U.S. last month for a 19.8% gain over the same month a year earlier.
Sales rose 45% at its Jeep brand, which sells only SUVs and crossovers. The automaker also logged a 33% gain in Ram pickup truck sales. It sold nearly 44,000 trucks and has dramatically narrowed the gap with the Chevrolet Silverado, which logged sales of about 49,000 pickups last month.
It was Chrysler's 53rd consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains.
"This is an impressive streak for a company that was all but left for dead five years ago," Caldwell said. "Chrysler has been able to keep it going by diving into the subprime [auto loan] market more aggressively than other automakers and by jumping into the leasing game."
General Motors, the nation's largest auto seller, bucked the trend, logging a small decrease in U.S. sales in August. The Detroit automaker said sales fell 1.2% last month to 272,423 vehicles, according to Autodata. It blamed a tough comparison with a strong August in 2013.
"We see a strong fall selling season ahead for GM and the industry," said Kurt McNeil, U.S. vice president of sales operations. "Car-buying fundamentals like employment and energy prices are in good shape, consumer confidence has reached a post-recession high, and business investment is increasing."
Toyota sold 246,100 vehicles in the U.S. last month, a record August for the automaker and a 6.3% gain from the same month a year earlier.
Honda sold 167,038 vehicles last month, a 0.4% increase, and scored a rare win over its Japanese rival Toyota. Honda's August results were led by the sale of more than 51,000 Accord sedans. That knocked Toyota's Camry off its perch as the bestselling passenger car in America, at least for the month. Toyota sold about 44,000 Camrys in August.
Still, the Camry is expected to finish the year as the top-selling car. Ford's F-Series pickup will be the best seller overall.
But despite robust truck and SUV sales, Ford's August total was more muted, up just 0.4% to 221,373 vehicles, Autodata reported. That was still its best August sales in eight years.
"All around it was just a very good month for the industry," said John Felice, Ford vice president, U.S. marketing, sales and service.
Nissan said it had U.S. sales of 134,388 vehicles, an increase of 11.5% over the prior year and an August record. Hyundai sales rose 5.9% to 70,003 last month. That was only the second month in its history in which Hyundai had sold more than 70,000 vehicles. It was also an August sales record for the South Korean automaker.