Auto Sales Keep Rising in February

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- February is shaping up as another strong month for automakers, with rising sales for most manufacturers and segments, led by a 29% increase in subcompact sales.

Overall, experts are projecting that U.S. light vehicle sales will rise 6% to 6.4%, with sales between 1.05 million and 1.1 million and a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate between 13.3 million and 14.4 million. TrueCar.Com said it raised its full-year sales estimate to 14 million from 13.8 million. Previously, GM ( GM) estimated full-year 2012 light vehicle sales between 13.5 million and 14 million.
2012 Ford Focus

TrueCar projects February light vehicle sales of 1.09 million, while Edmunds.com projects sales of 1.1 million, up 6% from the same month a year earlier; Kelly Blue Book projects sales of 1.05 million up 6.4%.

"There's a rising tide of excellent buying conditions right now that is really driving auto sales momentum," said Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell, in a statement. "Between surprisingly strong sales over Presidents Day weekend, optimistic economic news and unseasonably mild weather conditions across the country, things seem to be breaking the right way for both car buyers and dealers."

A correlation between the stock market and new vehicle sales continues, noted TrueCar analyst Jesse Toprak, in a statement. "Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and new vehicle SAAR reached their highest levels since May 2008 in February," he said, in a prepared statement.

As gas prices rise, consumer interest in small cars is growing. Kelley Blue Book projects that sales of subcompact cars will jump 29%, to 63,000 units, about 6% of the overall market, with all other segments showing single-digit gains. "Consumer interest at TrueCar.com for fuel-efficient models is up 15% this month compared to last year, indicating a shift in shopping preferences as gas prices have increased," said TrueCar analyst Kristen Andersson. Ford ( F) said February sales of the Focus are expected to exceed 20,000, doubling the February 2011 level of 10,879.

Chrysler should gain lead the top seven automakers with a gain around 25%, while Ford's gain is expected to total about 6%, according to Kelly Blue Book. But Chrysler's huge gains in recent months "should level off beginning next month," said Kelley Blue Book analyst Alec Gutierrez, in a prepared statement. "The Chrysler 200 didn't sell in significant volume until March 2011."

GM sales are expected to fall by 6% to 9%. "GM's year-over-year decline is a direct result of its aggressive incentives push that pumped up sales in early 2011," Edmunds.com said. This February, however, the average industry incentive is down 4.2%, to $2,468, while GM's incentives are down 19%, to $3,012, TrueCar said.

Among the major Japanese automakers, all three are expected to show single-digit sales increase for the second month in a row, "an event that has not been seen since prior to the supply shortages that arose last spring," Edmunds said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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