Tuesday December 4, 2012

DETROIT -- Hurricane Sandy gave an extra boost to U.S. auto sales, making November the best month for carmakers in nearly five years.

Toyota, Volkswagen and Chrysler were among the companies posting impressive increases for November, which is normally a lackluster month because of colder weather and holiday distractions. Only General Motors was left struggling to explain yet another month of weak growth.

Industry sales rose 15 percent from a year earlier to 1.1 million, according to AutoData. That was their fastest pace since January 2008. U.S. sales would reach 15.5 million this year if they stayed at November’s rate, far higher than the 14.3 million rate in the first 10 months of this year.

Americans are more confident in the economy, a key driver of auto sales. Home values are rising, hiring is up and auto financing remains readily available. And besides just feeling better, people need to replace aging cars or vehicles damaged by Sandy.

"Everything is kind of moving along almost in concert now," says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area industry consulting firm.

Sandy added 20,000 to 30,000 sales industry wide last month, mostly from people who planned to buy cars during the October storm but had to delay their purchases, Ford estimates.

People who need to replace storm-damaged vehicles are expected to drive sales for several more months. GM estimates that 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles will eventually need to be replaced.

Even so, carmakers warned that uncertainty over the "fiscal cliff" could undo some of the gains.

The term refers to sharp government spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to start Jan. 1 unless an agreement to cut the budget deficit is reached between Congress and the White House.

Alec Gutierrez, a senior market analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said a household making $100,000 per year would pay $160 more per month if the payroll tax goes up 2 percent. That’s about the same amount as a lease payment on a compact car.

At Toyota, sales rose 17 percent in November, partly due to post-Sandy demand. Honda was up 39 percent thanks to strong sales of the new Accord sedan and clearance deals on the outgoing Civic, which was replaced by a new 2013 Civic at the end of the month. Volkswagen’s sales rose 29 percent on the strength of the Passat sedan.

But at General Motors, sales rose just 3 percent.

GM’s biggest brand, Chevrolet, reported flat sales over last year despite new products like the Spark minicar. Silverado pickup sales fell 10 percent.

GM’s sales have been trailing the industry all year. They were up 4 percent through October, compared to the industry-wide increase of 14 percent.

At Ford, sales were up 6.5 percent on the strength of the F-Series pickup. Ford also saw strong sales of its new C-Max hybrid wagon and of the Ford Focus small car.

Nissan spending was up 45 percent to $4,273 per vehicle, by far the highest incentives in the industry.

Luxury cars saw their usual year-end surge as holiday commercials started crowding the airwaves. Porsche’s sales rose 71 percent to 3,865, a record month for the automaker. Infiniti, Acura, BMW and Lexus all reported big gains.

If industry-wide sales end up at 15 million for the year, it would be a vast improvement over the 10.4 million during the recession in 2009. Sales would still fall short of the recent peak of around 17 million in 2005.