Customers likely found good deals on 2012 models last month, especially for leases and pickup trucks. Chrysler is offering $4,289 in discounts on the Ram 1500, Edmunds said. Also, Honda raised its incentives 27 percent in August from July to an average of $1,666 per vehicle.
Buyers also were drawn out by exciting new models such as the midsize Nissan Altima and the Dodge Dart compact, Schuster said. Chrysler sold more than 3,000 Darts in its first full month on the market. The Dart is the company's first competitive compact car in more than a decade.
Low interest rates also were pulling people in. A 48-month new-car loan averaged 2.98 percent last week, according to Bankrate.com. And automakers were offering no-interest loans on some models.
Honda and Toyota once again are expected to lead the way in sales increases. Last year at this time their dealers had few models to sell because a March earthquake in Japan hobbled their factories. This year they're back to full supplies.Sales started the year strong, backed off a little in May, but came back during the summer. Schuster expects to end the year at 14.3 million, more than 1.5 million above last year. Sales hit a recent high of 17 million in 2005. The bottomed at a 30-year low of 10.4 million during the recession in 2009.