Auto buyers turned their sights toward pickups and sport utility vehicles in April, fueling big gains for automakers with truck-heavy lineups and giving more momentum to the industry’s upswing after a slow start to the year.
Chrysler Group LLC and Nissan Motor Co. — the only two full-line automakers to post year-over-year sales gains in each of the year’s first four months — continued to lead the way. Led by its Jeep and Ram brands, Chrysler Group sales were up 14 percent. Nissan was up 13 percent on the strength of its recently redesigned Rogue SUV and Sentra compact. Toyota also reported a 13.3 percent sales gain over last year.
Jeep has been money in the bank all year long for Chrysler.
Sales of the Jeep brand were up 52 percent last month to 59,754 vehicles, setting a U.S. record for the second consecutive month. For the year, Jeep sales are up 46 percent to 205,593 vehicles.
A big reason for that is the new Jeep Cherokee, which has sold well since entering the market last fall. The Cherokee was one of three Jeep models to top 15,007 units sold in April, along with the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. For Wrangler, the 15,389 units mark a record for April sales.
The Wrangler and Cherokee are built at Chrysler’s Toledo Assembly complex. Workers have been putting in long hours to keep up with demand, especially for the Wrangler.
The plant produced a record number of Wranglers last year and officials expect to crank out even more this year. Chrysler recently announced plans to hire an extra 1,000 temporary part-time workers to enable regular employees time off while keeping the pedal to the metal.
Though Jeep sales defied the January and February snowstorms, the industry as a whole struggled to get out of the gate early on. Sales fell to 1 million vehicles in January, a 3 percent decrease over January, 2013 — the first time the industry hadn’t posted a year-over-year sales gain in more than three years.
Analysts said sales would recover once weather improved, and they have.
Total sales grew to just under 1.4 million cars and trucks in April, up about 8 percent from a year ago.
Analysts say solid consumer confidence, low interest rates, and attractive lease offers should keep buyers streaming into new car dealerships for the rest of the year.
“It appears we are in a more stable environment, and the sun is shining,” said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for Cars.com. “We are now finally not stuck in first gear anymore.”
General Motors was among the firms reporting a solid gain in April, with sales up nearly 7 percent to 254,076.
GM said sales of large SUVs, a segment where it is entrenched as the industry leader, were up 22 percent for the month.
Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said that speaks somewhat to the overall strength of the economy.
“With the financial markets doing quite well, we’re seeing those higher net worth individuals benefit rather substantially, and I think that's why not only are you seeing growth in full-size pickups and SUVs [but] we’re also seeing a lot of strength in the luxury segment.”
Mr. Gutierrez said truck sales are also benefiting from improving real estate and construction industries in many parts of the country.
Hyundai and Kia both reported record April sales, while Mazda said it had its best April since 2008.
Not everyone had rosy news, though. Honda eked out a 1 percent gain, and Volkswagen continues to struggle.
And on the same day that Ford Motor Co. announced that CEO Alan Mulally will retire July 1, it reported a nearly 1 percent drop in sales.
While truck sales are strong, with the top-selling F-series posting its best April since 2006, Ford’s car sales were weak.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.