Strong US economy helps automakers plow through snowy weather and boost sales



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In this Dec. 2, 2014 photo, a Chrysler minivan sits under rain at a car lot in San Diego. Major automakers report vehicle sales for February on Tuesday, March 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)


DETROIT — Freezing temperatures and drifts of snow took a small bite out of U.S. auto sales in February, but most automakers still reported gains thanks to the strong economy.

Toyota led major automakers with a 13.3 percent gain over last February. Others came in below analysts' predictions. Chrysler, General Motors, Honda and Nissan all saw gains of 6 percent or less.

Ford's U.S. sales were down 1.9 percent, as dealers lacked the inventory to meet demand for the new F-150 pickup truck. Volkswagen's sales fell 5.2 percent.

All automakers report U.S. sales on Tuesday. Analysts had predicted an 8 percent increase over a year ago to nearly 1.3 million vehicles, based on the strength of the U.S. economy.

Falling unemployment, low interest rates and new versions of big sellers like the Jeep Cherokee — which saw sales jump 19 percent in February —drove buyers to dealerships in many cities. The forecasting firm LMC Automotive pushed up its 2015 forecast by 40,000 vehicles, based on strong demand. The firm is expecting U.S. sales to top 17 million this year for the first time since 2001.

Still, LMC said it became apparent as the month went along that bad weather in the mid-South and on the East Coast was hurting sales.

Colonial Volkswagen of Medford, Massachusetts, had almost no customers for a two-week period at the start of the month. Ken Cataldo, the dealership's general manager, said he and his staff spent much of the time clearing snow from cars and moving them around the lot just north of Boston in order to plow snow away.

"It was the worst two weeks of my life in the car business," said Cataldo, who's been selling cars for 29 years.

As temperatures warmed at the end of the month, some customers came out of hibernation. Colonial ended up selling 75 cars, still short of its goal of 115 and the normal monthly sales of 130, Cataldo said. He's hoping to make up for the lost sales this month.

"We've already put February in the rear-view mirror," Cataldo said.

There were also obstacles to overcome on the other side of the country. LMC said a dispute that halted some shipments of car parts into West Coast shipyards may also have impacted sales. The impasse was settled on Feb. 21.

In California, gas prices soared to more than $3.30 per gallon after an explosion at a refinery; nationally, they rose around 30 cents per gallon. But the national average of $2.44 per gallon is still $1 less than a year ago, according to AAA.

Consumers and businesses still shopped for trucks and SUVs despite the higher gas prices. GM said sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup jumped 24 percent last month to 45,395. And small SUVs continue to be one of the hottest segments in the market. Toyota sold nearly 22,000 RAV4 SUVs, up 33 percent from a year ago and a February record for the vehicle.

Toyota, with total sales of 180,467, bucked the industry with double-digit sales increases for the Camry, Corolla and Avalon sedans as well as SUVs and trucks. Prius hybrid sales were down 6.6, the victim of lower gas prices.

GM's sales rose 4.2 percent to 231,378. It got a boost from big SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade, which saw sales nearly double over last February.

Ford's sales declined nearly 2 percent to 180,383. Every Ford and Lincoln brand car except for the Mustang was down, and key SUVs like the Escape and Edge also saw sales declines. Ford blamed lower sales to commercial and rental fleets for some of the losses. Pickup sales are also slow as the company ramps up production of the new F-150. Ford says it won't have normal levels of truck inventory on dealer lots until the end of June.

Chrysler sold 163,586 vehicles for its best February in eight years. Sales of the Jeep brand rose 21 percent increase as Americans continued their shift away from cars toward small and large SUVs.

Honda's sales were up 5.0 percent to 105,466. Sales of its Fit subcompact jumped 81 percent after a recent redesign, but sales of other cars like the Accord and Civic fell.

Nissan's sales rose 2.7 percent to 118,436, a February record for the Japanese automaker. Nissan was led by the Rogue small SUV with a 24.6 percent sales increase.

Volkswagen's sales fell 5.2 percent to 25,710. Big sales gains for the new Golf couldn't overcome lower sales elsewhere in the German automaker's lineup.

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