By Jeff Gilbert

DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – A recovering economy, stronger inventorys for Japanese brands, and a big interest in fuel efficient small cars boosted February car and truck sales numbers to heights that haven’t been seen since 2008.

“The clear theme here is exceeding expectations,” says analyst Jeff Schuster with LMC Automotive.

Every major carmaker posted improved sales gains. Most did better than analysts were projecting.

INTERVIEW: Jeff Schuster of LMC Automotive talks about February car sales.

“The industry, I think, is showing some good strength, which we all want to see,” said GM sales operations manager Don Johnson.

General Motors sales only rose one percent. But, that was compared to a February of 2011 pushed on by pretty big incentives.

Ford sales were up 14 percent. Chrysler, with new products, posting stronger figures than its domestic competitors.

“Our product portfolio now contains some of the most fuel-efficient vehicles in our company’s history driving our sales up 40 percent in February,” said Reid Bigland, President and CEO – Dodge Brand and Head of U.S. Sales.

That includes the best sales month ever for the Fiat 500, with sales up 69 percent.

INTERVIEW: Michelle Krebs of talks about February car sales.

“A few years ago higher fuel prices were a major threat to our total vehicle sales whereas today those higher prices have become far less of an issue. We now have 13 vehicles with an EPA-rated highway fuel economy of 25 miles per gallon or higher, and six of those vehicles get 31 mpg or higher,” said Bigland.

High fuel prices seemed to help sales, boosting small vehicles like the Ford Focus, which saw its sales up 115 percent. Ford sales overall rose 14 percent.

“Sales momentum built as February unfolded, with higher fuel prices driving consumer demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles in the second half of the month,” said Ken Czubay, Ford vice president, U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service.

INTERVIEW: Jesse Toprak of talks with WWJ AutoBeat Reporter Jeff Gilbert

February was also a rebound month for Japanese brands, who have now completely recovered from last year’s earthquake and tsunami. Toyota lead the way with a 12.4 percent sales increase.

“Fuel economy remains top of mind for consumers, and they’re responding to Toyota’s lineup, which is the most fuel efficient in the industry,” said Bob Carter, Toyota Division group vice president and general manager, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. “Camry sales continue to surge, and Prius, Yaris and Scion all posted double digit gains in February. We expect that high gas prices will continue to be a top purchase consideration for consumers, which bodes well for Toyota’s continued growth in 2012.”

Honda sales were up 8 percent, Nissan 15 percent. It was also a great month for Volkswagen, with sales rising 45 percent. Hyundai had another strong month, with sales up 18 percent.

But it looks like the domestic carmakers were the stars.

“We’ve seen domestic automakers far exceeding expectations” said analyst Jesse Toprak of “We’e also seen domestic carmakers being far more ready in terms of high gas prices with their much more gas efficient lineup of vehicles.”

In 2008, high gasoline prices caused car sales to plummet. But, today, the car companies have more small cars, and have made their larger vehicles more fuel efficient.

“What a difference four years makes and a change in product lines make for General Motors and Ford,” said cheif analyst Michelle Krebs. “In 2008, when gas prices spiked, GM did not have competitive small fuel-efficient cars, but with today’s rising gas prices, GM sales of the fuel-efficient Chevrolet Sonic and Chevrolet Cruze are soaring, carrying the brand and the company. At Ford, the revised Focus has taken off with a triple-digit increase over a year ago for its best year in more than a decade.”

GM’s Don Johnson doesn’t expect gas prices to hurt car sales, especially in an economy that’s seeing a lot of pent up demand for new vehicles.

“The nice thing about it is despite the increase in gas prices which nobody likes, but the underlying economic fundamentals are overcoming this.”

Connect with Jeff Gilbert
Twitter: @jefferygilbert

TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments (2)
  1. Lindy says:

    Just who are buying these cars? Not Americans with almost 400,000 people filing new unemployment claims each and every week? Could it be that these high figures are because of oversea sales? Could it also be that the big three employ more people overseas then they do in America? I don’t see our economy picking up because of these sales. What I do see is good old propaganda being thrown out there to get Obama elected again.

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