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U.S. auto sales continue slow-motion recovery

DETROIT  — All major automakers but Toyota reported strong U.S. sales increases in November as the auto industry’s slow-motion recovery continued to gain traction.

Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Nissan, Hyundai and Honda all reported double-digit increases, and only Toyota, which has been hurt by a string of safety recalls, had a sales drop. Overall, according to Autodata Corp., U.S. sales last month rose 17 percent from November 2009, a month marked by consumer paralysis due to high unemployment.

The November performance helped an industry trying to recover from last year’s historic lows as credit was frozen and two major automakers slid through bankruptcy court. Sales started the year with promise, peaked in May as consumer confidence rose, fell off during the summer and appear to be starting rebound.

Industry analysts say the solid November sales numbers, combined with a strong October, show that consumers who have kept their jobs through the economic downturn are feeling confident enough to spend money and replace older vehicles.

Bob Carter, Toyota’s top U.S. sales executive, said Toyota can tell things are shifting because buyers are opting for more highly equipped sport utility vehicles, which indicates they aren’t just buying because they need family transportation.

“At the beginning of the year, the vast majority of buyers were those who needed a car, versus wanted a car,” he said.

Those who spent money last month also bought crossovers like the Chevrolet Equinox and Hyundai Santa Fe. Midsize cars like the Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata also sold well.

The increased sales likely are due to a combination of rising confidence and delayed buying as people replace vehicles they have kept for longer than normal during a severe auto industry downturn, said Bruce Clark, senior vice president of Moody’s Investors Service.

“There is a degree of pent-up demand that’s being met gradually by people who have kept jobs and can go out and afford to do such things,” Clark said.

The sales are not as robust as historic highs from the early 2000s, but still are a good sign for the industry, Clark said.

Yingzi Su, GM’s senior economist, said the stable and increasing sales mark the start of an upward trend for automakers and are a good sign for the broader economic recovery going into next year. Once businesses see increased consumer spending, she said, they will be more willing to hire workers, a factor that has held back the economic recovery for months.

Incentives such as sweet lease deals and rebates also helped to increase sales last month. Automakers raised incentive spending about 6 percent over October to an average of $2,712 per vehicle, the auto website reported.

Of the major automakers, Hyundai Motor Co. had the biggest increase, up 45 percent from the same month last year. Nissan Motor Co. sales were up 27 percent, followed by Honda Motor Co. at 21 and Ford Motor Co. with 20 percent. Chrysler saw a 17 percent increase, while GM reported sales up 11 percent from November of last year.

Toyota sales dipped 3 percent, with the company blaming the drop on a 60 percent cut in sales to fleet buyers such as rental car companies. Carter said Toyota didn’t want to match competitors’ low prices on fleet vehicles. Toyota said sales to individual customers were up slightly but didn’t increase as much as the industry average.

Toyota has been fighting a string of embarrassing safety problems, having recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide mostly due to problems with sticky gas pedals or floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals.

GM reported increased showroom traffic toward the end of the month, an encouraging sign after its Nov. 18 initial public stock offering. The U.S. government, which spent $49.5 billion bailing GM out of its financial troubles last year, cut its stake in the company from 61 percent to about 33 percent by selling stock in the IPO. GM has maintained that government ownership has hurt its image among consumers and its sales. GM shares rose 2 percent to $34.78 in trading Wednesday.

Sales of GM’s four remaining brands — Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac — rose 21 percent compared with the same brands last November.

Ford’s numbers were fueled by truck sales that went up 34 percent. The year-ago result includes figures for Volvo, which Ford sold earlier this year. Ford shares rose 3 percent to $16.46 Wednesday.

Chrysler Group LLC reported its eighth-straight month of year-over-year sales increases, driven largely by the Jeep and Ram brands. The newly redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee continued to sell well, more than tripling since November 2009.

Moody’s is predicting 2010 U.S. sales of 11.5 million cars and trucks, rising to about 13 million in 2011, still far short of the 2000 peak of 17 million. This year’s sales are running below the 12.5 million vehicles that typically are scrapped each year, meaning auto sales eventually should increase as people replace their older cars, Clark said.

Americans’ confidence in the economy has been on the rise. The Conference Board, a private research group based in New York, on Tuesday said its Consumer Confidence Index rose to a five-month high in November. Consumer spending also was up.