Rising gas prices buoy April car sales

Major carmakers are posting double-digit sales gains for April as consumers deal with rising prices at the pump.

By Kim Peterson May 3, 2011 1:22PM
General Motors (GM) saw a 27% jump in car and truck sales last month as buyers -- feeling better about the economy and worse about climbing gas prices -- headed into dealerships.

GM sold 232,540 vehicles in the U.S. for the month, outselling crosstown rival Ford (F), which reported 189,780 sales for April, a 16% jump from a year ago.

The annual selling rate came in as expected at 13.17 million units for the month, up from 11.26 million units in April 2010, according to industry tracking firm Autodata. Total industry unit deliveries jumped 17.9% from a year earlier -- beating the 16% gain analysts wanted to see -- but dropped 7% from March 2011.

GM saw shares rise more than 2% in late afternoon trading to $32.94, while Ford shares were down less than 1% at $15.38.

Post continues after this video analyzing April car sales:
Already, it's looking like small cars and fuel-efficient crossovers were the stars in April, a month that saw gas prices creep ever closer to $4 a gallon. Today's average price for a gallon of regular gas is $3.97, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report. A month ago, the average was $3.65.

Image: Buying gas (© moodboard/Corbis/Corbis)"With gasoline prices eclipsing $3.90 a gallon, consumers are placing an even higher priority on fuel efficiency in every size and kind of vehicle," said Ford sales executive Ken Czubay.

If this trend continues, the automakers who have formed a strategy around compact cars and crossovers will see clear gains. GM, for example, has shifted from the pickups and SUVs that brought in past profits, and saw retail sales increase 25%.

In April, the company sold more than 25,100 Chevrolet Cruze compacts -- a sales record since the car debuted in October. The Cruze is now GM's second-best selling vehicle behind the Silverado pickup.

GM said that compact cars have climbed to 17% of its sales from 15% a year ago.

Ford said small-car sales were brisk, with the Fiesta surpassing 9,000 units for the second month in a row. Sales of the Focus were up 22% to 17,265, and the Fusion set a new April record with 21,189 units.Image: Couple shopping for car (© Image100/Jupiterimages)

Despite all the emphasis on small cars, trucks and SUVs were still holding strong. Ford said the new Explorer is still the fastest-turning vehicle in the showroom. It sold 12,593 Explorers in April. And high interest from commercial fleet buyers fueled the F-Series truck 11% to 45,435.

One Ford analyst told Reuters that higher gas prices are spurring buyers into purchases as summer approaches. "I believe there is a call to action," said the analyst, George Pipas. "Summer is the driving season, and I'm going to pull the trigger."

Toyota (TM) didn't see the same interest in its smaller cars in April, however. The company -- beset by problems after the earthquake in Japan -- said its U.S. auto sales only grew by 1.3% to 159,540. Total car sales dropped 2.9%, but light-truck sales rose 6.8%. SUV sales rose 3.5%.

Honda (HMC)
said its sales rose 5.7% to 124,800, boosted by record-breaking sales of the CR-V crossover utility vehicle, the sub-compact Fit and the Insight hybrid. The Accord and Civic sold 30,310 and 26,777 units respectively.

Chrysler reported its best April sales since 2008, with sales up 22% to 117,230. And for the carmaker, it was the mid-size sedans that carried the month, with strong interest in the Chrysler 200 and the new Dodge Avenger. The Jeep brand in particular saw a 65% increase, helped along by the new Jeep Compass.

Nissan saw a 12.2% uptick in April sales to 71,530, and said that the Sentra saw a 42.2% increase to 9,367 units. The carmaker sold 573 units of its all-electric Leaf, bringing the total to 1,044 since the car launched in December.

Hyundai said it broke an April sales record, with 61,750 units sold -- a 40% increase from a year earlier. A third of the cars sold that month achieved fuel economy ratings of at least 40 miles per gallon. The Elantra and Sonata combined to make up 71% of total sales -- and it was the first time Hyundai sold more than 20,000 units of two different models in the same month.

Kia Motors said it sold 47,070 cars in the U.S. in April, a 57% increase from a year ago. Demand for the new Optima outpaced supply, the company said.
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