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U.S. auto sales surge in August to month's highest level in years

General MotorsConsumer Confidence
August auto sales are best for the month in a decade
Toyota, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan post August auto sales gains. GM sales fell
Automakers will sell about 16 million vehicles in the U.S. this year

Auto sales rose to their highest August levels in about a decade based on the early reports from automakers Wednesday.

Chrysler, Ford, Toyota and Nissan all posted gains while General Motors saw sales slip.

Automakers sold about 1.6 million vehicles in the U.S. in August, an increase of about 3% from the same period a year earlier, according to initial industry estimates released Wednesday.

Sales this August surpassed last year’s total even though dealers in some states with restrictions on retailing had one less day to sell cars this year.

“The industry had its best August in over a decade,” said Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager.

Toyota said it sold 246,100 vehicles in the U.S. last month, up 6.3% from August 2013.

Auto sales should exceed 16 million for the year for the first time since 2007, said Michael Ward, an analyst with the Sterne Agee investment house. U.S. light-vehicle sales exceeded 16 million units every year between 1999 and 2007 but plummeted as the nation headed into the Great Recession.

Favorable lending rates, “a modestly improving economy,” and a large number of vehicles coming off lease that will be replaced by consumers are supporting demand for new vehicles, Ward said.

Sales were also pushed by “dealers who need to clear out 2014 models to make room for 2015 inventory,” says 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.”

The August sales results amounted to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of about 17 million, Ford executives said. Many analysts believe the market won’t grow much beyond its current sales rate.

“We continue to believe that the pace of sales for the industry has likely plateaued, leading to increased jostling for share,” said Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Research.

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. It blamed a tough comparison to a strong August 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.”

Ford said it sold 222,174 vehicles in August, up 0.4% from a year ago and 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.

Chrysler posted U.S. sales of 198,379 vehicles, a 20% increase from a year earlier and its best August sales since 2002. It was the automaker’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 market more aggressively than other automakers and by jumping into the leasing game.”

Nissan said it had U.S. sales of 134,388 vehicles, an increase of 11.5% over the prior year and an August record.

Car shopping company TrueCar Inc. estimated the average transaction price for light vehicles in the U.S. was $31,610 in August, up $751, or 2.4%, from August 2013 and down $125, or 0.4%, from last month.

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