Several of the companies reported their best April totals in years. Overall, sales were mostly in line with analysts' predictions of a 6% increase compared with a year ago. All automakers were scheduled to report sales on Friday.
Buyers, buoyed by lower gasoline prices, flocked to crossover SUVS that handle like cars and sit up higher. The gains came at the expense of many small and midsize cars.
"The demand for crossover SUVs is off the charts," said Bill Fay, a Toyota group vice president.
Erich Merkle, Ford's top sales analyst, said small SUVs accounted for almost 19% of industry sales last month, two percentage points higher than a year ago.
General Motors Co., the top-selling automaker in the U.S., posted a 5.9% increase and sold 269,000 vehicles. Sales of the Chevrolet Equinox midsize SUV rose 42% to nearly 29,000, while sales of the Buick Encore small SUV gained 29% to nearly 5,600. But the Chevrolet Malibu midsize car fell nearly 13%, while sales of the Chevy Cruze compact dropped nearly 4%.
Ford Motor Co. posted a 5% gain for its best April in nine years. The Dearborn, Mich., automaker sold more than 222,000 cars and trucks last month, led by record SUV sales.
The revamped Ford Edge midsize SUV posted its best April sales ever at just over 13,000, up 78% from a year ago. Ford sold 26,000 Escape small SUVs, up nearly 5%. But sales of the Fusion midsize car and Focus compact car both fell.
Sales of the F-Series pickup, Ford's top-selling vehicle, fell 1% to 63,000. The company continues to ramp up production of a new model with an aluminum body. Selling prices for the F-Series averaged a record $42,600, with lower monthly payments due to longer loans driving purchases of loaded-out trucks.
GM sold 46,000 Chevrolet Silverado pickups, its best-seller, for a gain of nearly an 8%. Sales of the Ram pickup, Fiat Chrysler's top-selling vehicle in the U.S., rose 3% to just under 38,000.
Fiat Chrysler's Jeep brand benefited from the SUV craze as well. Jeep posted its best-ever monthly sales at nearly 72,000, up 20% from a year ago. Overall, Fiat Chrysler's U.S. sales rose about 6%.
Toyota Motor Corp. reported a 1.8% sales increase to just over 203,000 with record April sales of the RAV4 small SUV and Highlander midsize SUV.
At Nissan, sales were up 5.7% to nearly 110,000. The company said its small and midsize SUVs set an April record, led by the Nissan Rogue with an increase of 45%.
Hyundai Motor Co. also reported its best April ever with sales up 2.9% to slightly above 68,000.
The Volkswagen brand, which lacks strong SUVs, saw sales fall about 3% to just over 30,000.