Chrysler outpaced its Detroit rivals with a 27 percent increase in sales in October, led by strong demand for its Jeep and Chrysler brands. Ford sales gained 6 percent while GM, the largest of the Big Three, ran third with a 2 percent rise in sales.
Chrysler had its best October sales since 2007, selling more than 114,000 cars and trucks last month compared with 90,000 a year earlier. As a whole, sales in October rose to their highest level of the year.
Ford said Tuesday its U.S. sales were helped by strong demand for its pickups and SUVs. Car sales dropped 8 percent at the automaker, however. Only the subcompact Fiesta and the midsize Fusion saw small increases from last October.
GM's sales were led by the Chevrolet Cruze compact and Equinox crossover. Cruze sales nearly tripled from last year, Equinox sales rose 18 percent.
The automaker's overall sales suffered from rough comparisons with the strong sales it reported at the same time last year.
GM sold nearly 187,000 cars and trucks last month. Car sales were up 4 percent and trucks were up 2 percent. But sales of the company's crossover sport utility vehicles fell 1 percent.
Nissan's October sales were up 18 percent as the Japanese automaker extended a winning streak against rivals Toyota and Honda.
Despite the upbeat sales reports, shares of automakers dropped amid concerns that the fallout from the European debt crisis could undermine the global economy and reduce the rising demand for autos expected in 2012.
"We don't have a strong recovery to begin with and the last thing it needs is a couple of body blows," said Paul Ballew, chief economist at insurer Nationwide. "Every time this industry starts to feel better about itself, you kind of look at the world around and gulp."
U.S. auto sales, which are tracked as one of the earliest snapshots of consumer demand, slipped in the spring and early summer amid concerns about the prospect of a renewed downturn in the U.S. economy and supply disruptions triggered by the March earthquake in Japan.
Sales overall had been expected to rise last month as people who put off buying cars last summer because Japanese brands were in tight supply returned to the market in October.
Consumers delay buying
Analysts said the improved results for October showed some consumers have delayed vehicle purchases for as long as they could during the downturn. Used car prices are higher and the average age of cars and trucks on American roads is now about 11 years, the highest-ever reading for that indicator for pent-up demand.
Jonathan Browning, chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America, said the strong October sales for Volkswagen came despite the still-weak economy.
"There are still are some underlying consumer confidence issues," Browning said.
He said he expected industrywide U.S. sales to end at about 13 million vehicles for the full year, up from 11.6 million in 2010. The sales rate in the first nine months of 2011 was 12.5 million.
Retail sales for Chrysler, which exclude discounted sales to fleet operators like car rental agencies, were up 40 percent in October, a rebound that underscored how far the weakest of the three U.S. automakers has bounced back since its 2009 bankruptcy and bailout.
Last month, Chrysler was third in U.S. sales behind cross-town rivals GM and Ford and slightly ahead of Toyota Motor Corp.
Nissan's U.S. sales chief, Al Castignetti, said he expected that fourth-quarter U.S. auto sales would hit the highest level of the year as consumers shrug off the economic and financial uncertainty.
"We've been dealing with this all year," he said. "People have been conditioned to deal with the headlines."
October was the first month that dealers at Nissan's rivals, Toyota and Honda, reported that their inventories had returned to near normal levels, seven months after the earthquake in Japan that disrupted the supply of key components including electronic sensors.
Nissan was quicker to bounce back from the March disaster.
Analysts are watching the impact of floods in Thailand, which could crimp production for the Japanese automakers in the months ahead.
Honda withdrew its annual earnings guidance Monday, citing the strong yen and floods in Thailand, just as it was starting to recover from Japan's earthquake and tsunami.
Among Japanese automakers, Honda has been hit the hardest by the supply disruptions caused by both Asian disasters. The latest floods in Thailand have caused direct damage to the company's car factory in Thailand's Ayutthaya province.
Honda said its North American production would be half of its original plan from Nov. 2 through Nov. 10 at its six plants in the United States and Canada due to parts shortages resulting from the floods.