DETROIT - Automakers reported solid if unspectacular sales in September, as manufacturers with the freshest products drew the most attention from U.S. consumers.
Overall sales for September increased 28.5 percent from a year ago, when sales tumbled in the aftermath of the "Cash for Clunkers" rebate program.
Last month's increase slightly exceeded expectations and raised hopes the industry would continue its long, slow comeback from 2009, when sales hit their lowest levels in 25 years.
Pickups and other light trucks outsold smaller and more fuel-efficient passenger cars for the first time since February, 2009.
Truck sales rose 41 percent; car sales were up 18 percent.
Ford Motor Co. once again posted strong results with a 46 percent increase.
Ford, which has replaced many of its most popular products with newer models, said its market share improved for the 23rd month in the past 24.
The company's gain has been tied closely to those new models, including the
recently introduced Ford Fiesta subcompact.
"Ford has a solid lead on Toyota and should regain the No. 2 spot for annual sales, which it hasn't held since 2007," said Ivan Drury, an analyst for the auto-research Web site Edmunds.com.
Toyota, which has struggled because of quality concerns and safety recalls, rebounded in September with a 17 percent gain over the same period a year ago.
General Motors Co., the nation's biggest automaker, said its sales climbed 11 percent in the month, but that the four brands it still operates - Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, and GMC - had a 22 percent increase.
GM closed three brands and sold off a fourth since it emerged last year from its government-sponsored bankruptcy.
The biggest surprise in last month's figures came from Chrysler, which has struggled since its government bailout and bankruptcy reorganization.
Sales of Chrysler's sport utility vehicles benefited from stable gas prices.
The newest product, the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee, helped push an overall increase of 61 percent in September.
Chrysler's sales increase last month was helped by Toledo-built vehicles.
Jeep Wrangler sales were up 29 percent from the same month last year to 7,765; Jeep Liberty sales were up 79 percent to 4,865, and Dodge Nitro sales were up 79 percent to 2,032. For the year, Wrangler sales are up 10 percent, Liberty up 14 percent, and Nitro up 16 percent.
Chrysler outsold Honda by more than 2,000 vehicles, jumping into fourth place for the month, behind Toyota.
"New product is even more important now than any other time," said Jesse Toprak, vice president for industry trends and insights for TrueCar.com, which tracks vehicle sales and prices.
"Most consumers have been in a holding pattern, waiting for a reason to buy a car. A new car that is dramatically improved over the version that consumers already own may be a reason for them to go to dealerships today."
But showrooms remain considerably less crowded than before the recession, as unemployment and shaky consumer confidence deter car shopping.
"Consumers are still sending us a very clear message that they will continue to be cautious with their spending," said Don Johnson, GM's vice president for U.S. sales operations.
The industry's seasonally adjusted annualized selling rate, a closely watched measure of demand, was 11.76 million in September, the highest level this year.
The rate was 9.38 million a year ago.
Mr. Toprak said he expected the selling rate in the fourth quarter to be at least as high as September's, possibly even reaching 12 million.42.33168 -83.04792 ERROR: Template storyimage.ldo not found in theme default for section Automotive!
Automakers reported solid if unspectacular sales in September, as manufacturers with the freshest products drew the most attention from U.S. consumers.