U.S. car buyers came out of hibernation in April to spend on pickup trucks and SUVs, fueling an auto sales rebound that analysts expect to last the rest of the year.
Total sales grew to just under 1.4 million cars and trucks, up about 8 percent from a year ago. Sales ran at an annual rate of just over 16 million, according to Autodata Corp.
Nissan led the way with an 18.3 percent increase over a year ago, with sales of the redesigned Rogue small SUV up almost 27 percent. Chrysler posted a 14 percent gain, boosted by a big jump in sales of Jeep SUVs. Both companies reported record April sales. Toyota sales grew by 13 percent, led by a double-digit gain in truck sales.
General Motors, which has suffered through bad publicity from a string of embarrassing safety recalls, posted a 7 percent gain, led by the Buick Encore small SUV and the Chevy Silverado pickup truck. And Hyundai sales rose a little more than 4 percent on strong SUV sales.
But there were some soft spots.
Honda sales grew only 1 percent, while Ford sales fell by a point. Ford's car sales sputtered, although sales of its F-Series pickup, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., rose 7.4 percent. Sales at Volkswagen dropped 8.4 percent.
U.S. consumers bought 15.6 million new cars and trucks in 2013. The industry entered 2014 with expectations of selling more than 16 million cars for the first time since 2007. But sales dropped 3 percent in January and were flat in February. March started slowly, but finished with a flourish.
"Sales momentum from March rolled into April, pushing the industry to its best back-to-back monthly sales pace since fall of 2007," Toyota vice president Bill Fay said in a statement.
Analysts expect that April's sales pace was slightly slower than the rate in March, but should still translate into full-year sales of more than 16 million cars and trucks.
"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."
Toprak expects the April sales pace to hold or improve slightly through the rest of the year. His full-year forecast calls for sales of 16.2 million.
U.S. buyers have continued their shift toward small SUVs. At Ford, smaller SUVs accounted for 16 percent of U.S. sales in April, 2 percentage points higher than the same month last year, said Erich Merkle, the company's top sales analyst. Small-car sales fell two percentage points and midsize car sales were flat.
"It is our estimation that both the midsize ... and small-car segments are being adversely impacted by continued really strong performance in the small utility category this year," he said.
Small SUVs are stealing sales from other parts of the market as well, especially with baby boomers who are downsizing from larger SUVs but like the maneuverability and high seating position of the smaller ones, Toprak said. For instance, sales of the Honda CR-V, the No. 1 seller in the segment, rose 7.4 percent to more than 28,000, making it one of the most popular vehicles in the nation.
Ford's sales report was eclipsed by the news that the company's CEO, Alan Mulally, would retire on July 1. He'll be replaced by Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields.