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U.S. Business Ford, Fiat Chrysler post double-digit sales gains in U.S.

A new Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sign is pictured after being unveiled at Chrysler Group World Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., on May 6, 2014.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Ford Motor Co. beat estimates with U.S. auto sales rising 16 per cent in January, while Nissan Motor Co.'s 15-per-cent increase also exceeded projections. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV gained 14 per cent as cheaper gas and falling unemployment boosted consumer confidence.

All of Fiat Chrysler's brands gained led by the Jeep sport-utility line's 23-per-cent rise. Ram pickup and work-van sales rose 21 per cent, and FCA US, formerly known as the Chrysler Group, has now reported rising sales for 58 consecutive months. Nissan topped estimates for an 11-per-cent rise as sales of its Altima midsize sedan jumped 17 per cent to a January record of 26,408. Ford said its F-Series pickup line had its best January since 2004.

"This is going to be seen as a good month and a continuation of the trends we've seen," Maryann Keller, an independent automotive consultant in Stamford, Conn., said Tuesday in a Bloomberg Radio interview. "It's the fact that lenders are willing to make very good financing offers, both leasing and loans, to customers today with somewhat compromised credit, where three or four years ago they wouldn't do it."

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The sales year starts with the top six auto makers projected to increase sales by more than 10 per cent from a year earlier, when shoppers stayed away from showrooms amid the coldest January in two decades for the contiguous U.S. states. The annualized selling rate, adjusted for seasonal trends, probably rose to 16.5 million cars and light trucks – the fastest January pace in nine years – from a 15.3 million pace a year earlier. Results will be released throughout the day.

FCA US projected a selling rate of 17 million, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks that typically make up at least 200,000 sales a year.

General Motors Co., the largest U.S. auto maker, is projected to increase sales by 19 per cent, while No. 2 Ford's deliveries may rise 13 per cent, the averages of nine estimates.

Bright Spot

The U.S. is a bright spot in the global auto industry as sales growth slows in China and demand in Europe is weighed down by Russia's struggling economy. Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive office of Nissan and Renault SA, said yesterday in a Bloomberg Television interview in Paris that the Russian auto market will shrink by a fifth this year. Sales of passenger cars and light commercial vehicles fell 10 per cent in 2014 to about 2.5 million units, according to the Moscow-based Association of European Businesses, or AEB.

After a strong finish to 2014 – November and December were two of the year's three best months – most analysts surveyed by Bloomberg increased their 2015 estimates, raising the average projection to 16.9-million deliveries. As recently as mid-November, the average estimate was for sales to rise about 200,000 to 16.7 million cars and light trucks for a sixth consecutive year of growth, the longest streak since at least World War II.

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"Number one, the U.S. economy is showing more strength today, and we adjusted our figure based on the jobs reports," said George Magliano, senior principal economist at IHS Automotive and an analyst who contributed to the survey. "Number two, energy and oil prices falling are a big boost for consumer confidence, and people are going out and buying cars

An improving job market and gasoline prices near $2 a gallon is likely to add 200,000 more car sales this year than analysts estimated just two months ago, according to a new survey, Magliano said.

Twelve of the 13 analysts surveyed boosted their estimates from November. None lowered a projection. And the average estimate now is for twice as much growth as they anticipated in November.

Like auto sales, the U.S. economy also improved in the second half of last year. The Commerce Department said the gross domestic product rose at a 5-per-cent annual rate in the third quarter – the fastest since 2003 – largely because of an increase in consumer spending.

Almost 3 million jobs were added last year, bringing the unemployment rate down to 5.6 per cent, a more than six-year low. And the fewest Americans in almost 15 years applied for unemployment benefits last week, which was shortened by the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Cheaper Fuel

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At the same time that jobs are coming back, fuel prices have been falling. The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. was $2.067 on Monday, 44 per cent less than the $3.696 it was selling for on April 26, according to AAA, the driving club.

Consumer confidence increased this month to the highest level in more than seven years, the Conference Board reported this week. Another measure, the University of Michigan's final consumer sentiment index, jumped to an 11-year high.

"People are more confident, and they have more money in their pockets to spend on cars," said Beau Boeckmann, president and owner of California's Galpin Motors, the largest Ford retailer in the country. "The pent-up demand, especially for trucks, is what we're going to see in 2015. It's definitely the year of the truck."

Light-vehicle sales may total 1.16 million for the month, a 14-per-cent increase from a year earlier. Analysts estimated that Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. will increase sales by 13 per cent.

Early Days

"Although January isn't the most telling month for full-year trends, we're encouraged by this early momentum," Itay Michaeli, Citigroup Global Markets analyst, said in a research report.

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January is typically a slower sales month for automobiles, as it usually follows a boom in holiday car sales. Sales were particularly strong in November, when the annualized rate reached 17.2 million, and December, when it was 16.9 million.

Last year, after severe winter weather suppressed new-vehicle demand, the sales lost in January were made up in later months. Full-year light-vehicle sales eventually totaled 16.5 million, the most since 2006.

"Last year's weather is a good example of how, historically, January hasn't been the most predictive month," Michaeli said in an interview with Bloomberg. "But there are years left to go in terms of pent-up demand, and we're seeing that this month."

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