Most automakers posted stronger sales in October, showing that — like the economy as a whole — the industry is moving along, although still under the desired speed limit.
U.S. auto sales rose in October as buyers grew more confident and new models drew them into dealerships. The exception was Toyota, which reported a 4 percent sales decline as it struggled with the aftermath of massive safety recalls this year.
General Motors Co., which is preparing for an initial stock offering expected later this month, saw sales rise 3.5 percent in October. Last month is shaping up to one of the industry's best since August of 2009, when big government discounts spurred Americans to buy more cars and trucks.
"Consumer confidence is now stabilizing, and consumers are beginning to believe that they've already weathered the worst," said Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. sales operations for GM. The economy is showing "signs of a steady recovery, and we do believe they will bode well for the auto industry."
October sales could hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 12 million after all car makers report their U.S. results. While the rate falls short of the 14 million level during Cash for Clunkers in August 2009, it's up from a low of 10.5 million this February.
October sales were also strong for Honda, Chrysler and Hyundai. But Toyota, which has been dealing with repercussions from its sudden acceleration recalls earlier this year, saw sales drop 4.4 percent.
Rising sales of its crossover wagons and pickups failed to overcome a double-digit drop in Toyota's car sales. The Japanese automaker has been pulling back on incentives, which rose significantly in the spring after the company recalled millions of car and trucks over safety problems. TrueCar.com said Toyota's incentive spending dropped 1 percent between September and October, while most other manufacturers increased incentive spending last month.
GM's sales were driven by its SUVs and wagons, which posted increases of 36 percent for October and 64 percent year to date. Sales of GM's most popular wagons - the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain and Cadillac SRX - were up 58 percent compared with last October. Truck sales were also up, with the newly launched Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra posting sales up 12 percent and 13.2 percent respectively.
Ford Motor Co.'s sales rose 19.2 percent, led by big increases in trucks and small cars. Sales of the redesigned Edge crossover were up 24 percent, while Ford Escape sales rose 17 percent. Ford says sales of the F-Series pickup rose 24 percent, thanks in part to a month-long truck promotion.
Chrysler Group LLC's sales were up 37 percent from last October, partly on the strength of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, which saw sales more than triple. Ram pickup sales rose 41 percent.
New products also gave a boost to Honda Motor Co., whose sales climbed 16 percent. October was the first full month on the market for the Odyssey minivan, which saw October sales jump 52 percent. Wagons were also hot at Honda, where CR-V sales climbed 19 percent.
Automakers are expecting to sell around 11.5 million vehicles this year, up from a 30-year low of 10.4 million in 2009.
Consumer confidence rose slightly in October, according to a report released last week by the Conference Board. That, and a rebounding stock market, may have spurred buyers to invest in a new vehicle. Analysts are expecting last month to be the best October for the industry since 2007.
Sales to corporate customers are increasing at GM. Historically, the automakers have pushed cars into fleets through disounting and deals with rental companies in an attempt to boost vehicle production and sales numbers, but both automakers say recent fleet sales are profitable and healthy. GM's fleet sales accounted for 26 percent of monthly volume.
Most automakers were reporting U.S. auto sales Wednesday, but several reported results Tuesday. Among them:
— Hyundai said its October sales jumped 38 percent as sales of the new Sonata midsize sedan more than doubled.
— Subaru sales rose 25 percent for the month on strong sales of the Outback and Forester wagons.
— Volkswagen sales rose 18 percent with a boost from sales of the new Jetta. Jetta sales were up 32 percent over last October.