US auto sales continued to accelerate in February despite an unnerving jump in fuel prices as an improving overall economic outlook and aging vehicles drew consumers into showrooms, automakers said Thursday.
Total industry sales rose 15.7 percent from a year earlier, while the sales pace hit its highest level since February 2008: a seasonally adjusted, annualized rate of 15.1 million units, according to Autodata.
The sales pace was up sharply from January's rate of 14.18 million and 13.56 million in December.
"For much of 2011, the auto industry was a bright spot for the overall economy and we think that will likely continue to be the case," Don Johnson, head of US sales at General Motors, said in a conference call.
"Based on what we see in terms of pent up demand and the strength of the economy, we do not believe that short-term fluctuations in fuel prices will curtail industry growth this year."
The Detroit Three automakers are reaping the rewards of major investments in small cars and overall fuel economy improvements after years of ceding that territory to Asian rivals like Toyota and Honda.
Those new models are being introduced amid a steady rise of overall industry sales as the economy climbs out of a deep economic downturn.
Pent-up demand and the need to replace vehicles which now average a record age of 11 years will also spur growth, Ford economist Jenny Lin said in a conference call.
"Certainly if the gas prices keep going up like this people will cut some discretionary spending," she said in a conference call.
"However with the economy improving and people need new cars to go back to work I think that will offset the negatives of high gas prices."
Chrysler once again led the pack as its sales jumped 40 percent in February from a year ago, racking up nearly two years of growth and the ninth straight month of gains above 20 percent.
The third largest US automaker said it has also outpaced the overall industry sales rate for the 12th month in a row, thanks in part to its broad portfolio of fuel-efficient vehicles.
"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," Reid Bigland, who heads Chrysler's US sales, said in a statement.
In February, Chrysler's sales surge was led by a 126 percent jump in cars sales to 133,521 vehicles, while truck sales rose 20 percent.
Ford posted a 14 percent rise in February sales in the United States, to 179,119 vehicles, and said it planned to increase second-quarter production by three percent from last year to 730,000 vehicles.
GM, the world's top automaker by sales, said US sales rose a modest 1.1 percent to 209,306 vehicles compared with what it called a "very strong" performance in February 2011.
Toyota reported a 12 percent increase to 159,423 vehicles
"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, general manager of Toyota Motor Sales USA.
"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's sales rose 12 percent to 110,157 vehicles, Nissan posted a 16 percent gain to 106,731, Hyundai rose 18 percent to 51,151 and Kia jumped 37 percent to 45,038.