Despite storm and economic uncertainty, auto sales post healthy gain

By Nick Bunkley
New York Times / September 2, 2011

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DETROIT - Despite disruptions from Hurricane Irene and signs of a slowing economy, Americans bought more cars in August.

General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and Chrysler all posted impressive gains from a year earlier in their August data released yesterday. Industrywide, sales rose 7.5 percent from a year ago and 1.2 percent from July, according to the Autodata Corp.

“Consumers are getting used to making these big-ticket item purchase decisions in an everlasting, chaotic, uncertain economic environment,’’ said Jesse Toprak, vice president for industry trends and insight at, an automotive research firm. “We’re seeing more and more consumers becoming relatively comfortable in pulling the trigger when they don’t have all the answers.’’

Almost all of the 20 largest automakers have sales gains for the year to date. The only exceptions are Honda and Toyota, whose dealers have struggled to keep their lots stocked sufficiently since the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan early this year. Honda’s sales in the United States fell 24.3 percent last month from August 2010, and Toyota’s sales declined 12.7 percent.

Shortages of some small, fuel-efficient cars hindered other carmakers.

GM sales rose 18 percent, and Ford reported an 11.1 percent increase. But both companies are having trouble keeping up with demand for their respective compact cars, the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus, among other models.

The auto industry continues to make big strides in recovery from the depths of the financial crisis. Sales of autos are on track to be well ahead of last year, when 11.6 million vehicles were sold in the United States. GM said it remains confident that industry sales will top 13 million vehicles this year, even though several analysts have recently chopped their projections. At GM’s projected rate, sales would be roughly back to their 2008 level, when 13.2 million were sold in the United States.

“Consumers are being cautious, and appropriately so, but they are not retrenching,’’ said Don Johnson, GM’s vice president for US sales operations, on a conference call. “All indications to us are that the industry is going to slowly grow for the rest of this year.’’

But Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said GM could face “large production cuts and/or price discounting’’ by increasing output amid waning consumer confidence.

Chrysler said its August sales rose 30.6 percent, including a 58 percent increase for its Jeep brand of sport utility vehicles. It was the 17th consecutive month of year-over-year increases for Chrysler, which is gathering momentum after being written off by many critics. The company outsold Toyota by 636 vehicles, the third time this year that Chrysler has topped its larger, but injured, Japanese rival.

Nissan, which was able to return to normal production levels much faster that Honda and Toyota, reported a 19.2 percent gain. Sales rose 9.1 percent at Hyundai and 26.9 percent at Kia.