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U.S. Business U.S. auto sales up as consumers show ‘nerves of steel’

Chevy trucks line the lot of a dealer in Murrysville, Pa. in a file photo. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors all reported double-digit gains for January as last year’s momentum in U.S. auto sales continued into 2013.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

U.S. auto sales rose nearly 4 per cent in February, delivering a better-than-expected performance as strength in the U.S. housing market tempered worries over the wave of U.S. federal spending cuts due to begin on Friday.

The annual U.S. auto sales pace for February was 15.38 million vehicles, according to Autodata, better than the 15.1-million rate expected by economists polled by Thomson Reuters.

This marked the fourth month in a row that the sales pace held above the 15 million-vehicle mark, a sign that rising home values are helping American consumers feel more confident about buying a new vehicle.

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"The escalator is heading up and not down," said Kurt McNeil, head of U.S. sales operations for General Motors Co., which posted a better-than-expected sales gain.

This boost in housing comes at a time when the average vehicle on the road is at an all-time high of more than 11 years old and pushing past the point of repair.

Increased housing construction helped boost sales of pickup trucks during the month. GM's truck sales to small business owners were up 40 per cent, giving a "strong vote of confidence in the underlying economy," Mr. McNeil said.

GM, the largest U.S. auto maker, posted a nearly 30-per-cent jump in sales of its Chevrolet Silverado trucks, while Ford Motor Co's F-Series gained 15.3 per cent.

Improvements in the housing market and pent-up demand for new vehicles offset the risks posed to the broader economy by the across-the-board "sequestration" U.S. budget cuts, Ford and GM executives said during conference calls on Friday.

U.S. consumers are showing "nerves of steel" in the face of the budget cuts, Ford chief economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick said, adding that the cuts would lop off about a half a percentage point from GDP growth if fully realized.

Auto sales each month are an early indicator of economic health. The auto industry is in the midst of its fourth year of recovery from an economic downturn that pushed GM and its smaller U.S. rival, Chrysler Group LLC, into bankruptcy in 2009.

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GM's U.S. sales rose 7 per cent in February to 224,314 cars and trucks, while Ford Motor Co., the No. 2 U.S. auto maker, saw sales rise 9 per cent to a weaker-than-expected 195,822 vehicles.

U.S. auto sales in 2012 rose more than 13 per cent to 14.5 million cars and trucks. Sales rose 14 per cent in January to an annual sales rate of 15.3 million.

Like January, February is typically a slow sales month for the industry, so a small change in sales can have a large impact on the annual rate for the month.

Sales at Chrysler Group LLC, majority-owned by Italy's Fiat SpA, rose 4 per cent to 139,015 vehicles, slightly less than some analysts expected.

Japanese auto makers Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. each posted weaker-than-expected sales last month. Toyota's sales rose 4.3 per cent, while Honda fell 2 per cent and Nissan dropped 6.6 per cent.

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