Americans found plenty of reasons to drive home new cars in September, and that demand made auto sales one of the economy's bright spots for yet another month.
Sales rose for most automakers last month, led by Toyota's and Volkswagen's big gains of more than 30 percent from a year earlier.
Buyers needed to replace aging cars, banks offered cheap loans, and auto companies rolled out a new lineup of fuel-efficient midsize sedans. Underneath all that, buyers felt more confident about the jobs market, a key factor influencing car sales.
Toyota sales rose 42 percent from a year earlier, while Volkswagen's jumped 34 percent. Detroit didn't fare as well. Chrysler reported a 12 percent increase, but General Motors and Ford sales were either up slightly or flat.
After all car companies finish reporting Tuesday, total U.S. sales are expected to rise to more than 1.1 million vehicles, up 11 percent from September of 2011. Most analysts expect an annual rate around 14.5 million.
Auto sales have been a bright spot in a cloudy economy all year, maintaining an annual pace of at least 14 million most months. On Tuesday, Chrysler's U.S. sales chief, Reid Bigland, said that September sales for the industry could reach an annualized rate of nearly 15 million, making it the best month since March of 2008.
"We remain optimistic about the health of the U.S. new vehicle sales industry and our position in it," Bigland said.
Strong sales also could affect the November election. President Barack Obama often boasts on the campaign trail that the bailout of GM and Chrysler in 2009 helped save about 1 million jobs in the industry. Detroit's car companies run most of their factories in the Midwest, including Ohio, a key swing state. Republican Mitt Romney has said the companies should have gone through bankruptcy with private funding and allowed to recover with government-backed private loans. But it's unlikely private loans would have been available in 2009 and without government aid, the companies could have gone under.
Since the bailout, both GM and Chrysler have returned to profitability and hired thousands of new workers.
Chrysler reported its best September since 2007. Ford's sales, however, were flat compared with a year earlier, and General Motors reported only a 1.5 percent increase. Ford said big gains in small car and SUV sales were wiped out by lower truck sales. GM also reported declining truck sales, but a jump in car sales offset that drop.
A midsize sedan led Chrysler's September sales. Sales of Dodge Avenger jumped 89 percent from a year earlier. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV also notched a strong month with sales up 19 percent. But the company's best-selling vehicle, the Ram pickup, posted only a 6 percent increase following a strong August.
Ford was hurt by the discontinuation of the Ranger small pickup, which was a big seller last year. It was also weighed by a slowdown in sales of the Fusion sedan as Ford starts shipping a new model to dealerships. Sales of the F-Series large pickup, the country's best-selling vehicle, rose just 1 percent.
At GM, car sales were up 29 percent, led by the Chevy Cruze compact with a 43 percent increase. The Chevrolet Sonic subcompact saw sales rise to five times the number in September of last year. Sales of the Chevy Silverado pickup, GM's top-selling vehicle, fell almost 17 percent, as GM reported lower sales to rental companies.
Uncertainty about the broader economy is keeping sales from rising even faster. Some Americans are holding back on major purchases until they see how the budget battle shakes out in Washington, whether Europe can fix its economy and who wins the U.S. presidential election, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm.
Schuster expects September sales at an annual rate of 14.5 million, perhaps more if automakers finished the month stronger than expected. Bargain interest rates are largely fueling sales, he said. Some banks and credit unions offer 2 percent financing to people with good credit. That's almost as good as subsidized loans from the automakers' finance companies.
"Not only is it cheap, it's relatively available," Schuster said. "There's no question that's driving buyers."
Also, used-car values have remained high due to tight supplies and strong demand, and that means dealers are paying more for trade-ins.
And there are a bunch of new models coming out, especially in the midsize car category, the most popular segment of the U.S. market. Honda's new Accord and a new Ford Fusion are just hitting showrooms, as is a revamped Chevrolet Malibu. The redesigned Nissan Altima is selling well. A new Toyota Camry, the top-selling car in America, has been in showrooms for only a year.
The new models have ready buyers. People are replacing aging cars they held onto during the 2007-2009 recession, and that's been helping sales all year. The average age of cars and trucks on U.S. roads is near 11 years.
One thing that will be absent from September sales is big discounts from automakers. The average incentive for the month was $2,468, down almost 7 percent from September of last year, according to the TrueCar.com auto pricing site.
Even with uncertainty, there's enough good economic news to help sales, which could reach an annual rate of 15 million this month, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas.
Consumer confidence, one of the biggest factors influencing car-buying, jumped in September to the highest level since February. It was bolstered by a brighter outlook for overall business conditions and hiring.
Checks with dealers found higher floor traffic in mid-month "driven by aggressive lending and marketing activity, particularly for trucks," Jonas wrote in a note to investors.
Sales of 15 million would still fall short of the recent peak of around 17 million in 2005. They bottomed at a 30-year low of 10.4 million during the recession in 2009.