by Jeff Gilbert
WWJ AutoBeat Reporter

DETROIT (WWJ) -The consumer appears to be leading the way as most car companies are posting double digit sales increases from last year, with sales up even more on the retail end.   

“It’s very much a consumer based recovery in February compared to a year ago,” says J.D. Power analyst Jeff Schuster.  ” That’s very encouraging for the state of the industry right now.”

General Motors had the best showing of the domestic brands with a year over year sales increase of 46 per cent.

“When you dig down into our numbers, it’s our newer products that are really delivering for us,” said GM sales operation Chief Don Johnson.  At the retail level, GM sales jumped nearly 70 per cent.  Retail sales are those directly to customers at dealerships.

Ford and Chrysler sales were also up, but not as much.  They rose 14 per cent at Ford, 13 per cent at Chrysler.

“Driving this sales increase were the entire Jeep product lineup, the Ram pickup truck, our all new Dodge Durango sport utility and the new Chrylser 200 sedan,” said Chrysler spokesman Ralph Kisiel.   He said Chrysler’s retail sales were up significantly, but would not break out a specific number.

At Ford, retail sales were up 23 per cent.   Ford says it’s Fiesta subcompact had a very strong month…and they had strong sales of the outgoing Focus model.  The new 2012 Focus is starting to hit the market.

“I think we’re steady building a good foundation for the spring selling season,” says Ford sales analysis manager George Pipas. 

While Pipas says the small car increase was pushed on by higher gasoline prices, GM’s Johnson felt the good showing of the new Chevy Cruze was due more to the strength of the product, and rising gas prices weren’t that much of a factor.

“We’re seeing, I would say, a minor impact now,” he said.  “But, it also strengthens that end of the vehicle line where we weren’t that strong before.”

Johnson also reporting strong sales of the GM’s new small utilities, the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain.  Cadillac sales were up around 70 per cent.  Even pickup trucks were up over sixty percent, as companies work to replace their fleets.

General Motors incentives were higher than the industry average.  But, Johnson said the company is not getting back into old habits.

“Our incentive strategy is and will remain very, very disciplined,” Johnson told WWJ AutoBeat Reporter Jeff Gilbert.  “We’re doing a very good job of aligning our production with demand and making sure our incentives are competitive, but not being put into place just to just drive production.”

Some analyst are not convinced.  Jessica Caldwell, who’s a senior analyst with is concerned that General Motors is “buying market share” with its incentives.

“GM incentives are definitely, I would categorize as getting out of control,” she said.  “We estimate they spent over 3800 dollars in February.”

Toyota also posted a sales increase of over forty per cent.   But, that’s compared with February of 2010, when its sales were depressed by a major recall.

Nissan sales were up 32 per cent, Honda 22 per cent and Hyundai 28 per cent.

“It looks the beginning of the month was a bit weak,” said Caldwell.  “But, it had great finish.  I think this is going to set us up well going into March, which is a traditionally strong sales month, and even in to the summertime.”

Car and truck sales have been slowly rising since the fall.  Analysts see the trend that started in October continuing in February, which will likely end up as the best month since 2009’s Cash for Clunkers program.

“We’re still under the pace we were a few years ago when we were at the peak levels of 16 and 17 million units, but much better than we were in 2009 and 2010,” said J.D. Power’s Jeff Schuster. ” So, it is a progressive recovery. ”

follow Jeff Gilbert on Twitter @jefferygilbert


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