Americans continued to buy more cars in September. All the major automakers except Ford, which is seeing stiff competition from rival pickup trucks, posted healthy gains in U.S. auto sales last month.
The industry sold 1.25 million vehicles in September, a 9.4% increase from a year earlier, Autodata Corp. reported Wednesday.
"The industry is alive and well," said George Magliano, the senior auto economist at IHS Automotive. "It is turning out to be another good year."
IHS estimates U.S. auto sales will reach at least 16.4 million for the year, the best since 2006, when the industry sold 16.5 million vehicles. Through the first nine months of the year automakers have sold more than 12.4 million vehicles in the U.S.
The auto industry has enjoyed one of its strongest quarters in many years, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst for car shopping website Edmunds.com.
"Automakers have struck the right chord by putting more emphasis on leases and opening credit to a larger cross-section of buyers," Caldwell said. "Expect the same trends to continue through the end of the year."
General Motors Co. sold 223,437 vehicles in the U.S. in September, a 19.4% increase from a year earlier.
"GM saw strength almost across the board in September, and outpaced the industry with the newest trucks and SUVs," said Kurt McNeil, U.S. vice president of sales operations.
Robust sales of trucks and crossovers helped the automaker reach an average sales price of $34,600 for its vehicles last month, the highest in company history, GM said.
Also Wednesday, GM Chief Executive Mary Barra outlined the automaker's strategic plan to investors.
Barra said the company anticipates that its North American profit margins will rise to 9% to 10% by early next decade, up from 8.4% now.
GM will continue to roll out new products, which will account for an increasing percentage of its sales, Barra said. Next year, about 27% of GM's global sales volume is expected to come from new-generation vehicles or models that have undergone major enhancements. That figure is expected to rise to 38% in 2016 and 2017, and reach 47% in 2019.
The automaker is also focused on growing sales in China and reinvigorating its struggling Cadillac luxury brand. Cadillac's U.S. sales were unchanged at about 14,000 vehicles last month but have fallen more than 4% so far this year.
Ford Motor Co. said its U.S. sales totaled 179,518 vehicles in September, down 2.7% from a year earlier, Autodata said.
Sales dipped in part because it is becoming less reliant on business with rental car companies, Ford said.
But the automaker also is seeing sales of its industry-leading F-series pickup truck falter as it gets ready to launch a new version of the truck. It will be made with an aluminum body to reduce weight and improve fuel economy. Pickups are important for the automaker, making up about 30% of Ford's business, said John Felice, Ford's U.S. sales chief.
F-series truck sales declined 1% to just under 60,000. The decline came even as pickups are becoming more popular among buyers. Full-size pickup trucks accounted for almost 13.5% of industry sales last month, Ford said. That's a four-percentage-point increase from a year earlier.
Felice said Ford's decline in truck sales is partially due to how it is managing its inventory of the current model as it transitions to building the new truck.
Meanwhile, sales of Chevrolet's Silverado truck, the archrival to Ford's pickup, jumped 54% to more than 50,000. Sales of the Silverado's GM sibling, the GMC Sierra, rose nearly 25% to almost 17,000, enabling GM to outsell Ford in pickup trucks last month.
"Ford has a truck problem right now, and that's not something you can say very often," Caldwell said. "Ford is sitting on the sidelines while its competition is engaging a plush market of willing truck buyers."
Sales of Chrysler's Ram pickup trucks also soared last month, rising 30% to almost 37,000. All told, Chrysler Group posted total U.S. sales of 169,890 vehicles, an 18.8% increase from a year earlier and Chrysler's best September sales since 2005.
Toyota's U.S. sales rose nearly 1.7% to 167,279 vehicles last month.
"Auto sales remained strong in September and rounded out an excellent third quarter, the best for the industry since 2006," said Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager.
Honda sales rose 12% to 118,223 vehicles. Its Honda brand had its best September since 2007. Nissan also posted a big gain, with sales rising nearly 18.5% to 102,955 vehicles last month, a September record for the automaker.