Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU - Get Report) posted a 5.6% sales increase for April, suggesting a fulfillment of analysts' forecasts that industry sales will set a new record for the month, marking the best April since 2005.
"Consumer preference for SUVs and pickup trucks continued unabated in April and helped to propel us to our strongest April sales in 11 years," said Reid Bigland, FCA's head of sales in North America.
Ford (F - Get Report) , the nation's No. 2 carmaker, said U.S. vehicle sales rose 4%. The automaker's Explorer SUV sales were up 22%. Sales of F-Series pickups were red hot, passing 70,000 for the second straight month.
John Humphrey, senior vice president of J.D. Power, said buyers will spend more on new vehicles than any other April on record. Slowing economic growth, the shift away from cars to SUVs and crossovers, plus significant fleet sales "pose significant challenges to manufacturers as they compete in the marketplace."
The nation's No. 1 producer, General Motors (GM - Get Report) , reported a 3.5% decline in sales for the month, mostly due to a decline in deliveries to daily-rental fleets. GM has said it is trying to trim such deliveries because they are less profitable than retail sales to individual customers.
GM's Chevrolet division reported its best April for retail sales since 2006, lifted especially by Malibu's 45% sales increase, the company said.
Nissan (NSANY) and Honda (HMC - Get Report) met predictions to be the biggest gainers among the top automakers. Nissan sales rose 13%, topping the 11% average estimate of analysts compiled by Bloomberg. Nissan brand light-truck sales rose 10% to an April record; the brand set an April record for cars, with Sentra up 12% and Altima up 29%. Honda sales rose 14%, beating the average estimate for a 10% increase. Toyota (TM - Get Report) sales climbed 3.8%, edging past estimates for a 3.6% gain.
If the industry stays on pace for the rest of 2016, it would break last year's 17.4 million sales, an annual record.
"Even though Q1 ended with a relatively lackluster March, the industry still as strong as ever, and this month's sales will only reinforce that strength," said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds.com director of industry analysis. "Considering that April is typically the calm before the storm of summer sales, there's every reason to believe that 2016 will be a year for the history books."