DETROIT - Automakers posted big U.S. sales gains last month as consumers -- giddy from Super Bowl ads -- returned to showrooms after a snowy January.
Ford's (F) sales rose 20 percent over last February, boosted in part by higher sales to rental car fleets. Honda's (HMC) sales were up 13 percent, and Fiat Chrysler's (FCAU) rose 12 percent. Nissan's (NSANY) sales rose nearly 11 percent, and Toyota's (TM) were up 4 percent. Hyundai's sales rose 1 percent.
General Motors (GM) said its sales fell 1.5 percent, partly due to a 39-percent cut in rental sales. Volkswagen (VLKAY), still stinging from its diesel cheating scandal, saw its U.S. sales drop 13 percent.
Consulting firm LMC Automotive predicts an 8.1 percent increase over a year ago to 1.36 million new vehicles. With an annual selling rate of 17.7 million cars and trucks, last month would be the best February in 16 years. Automakers reported monthly sales figures on Tuesday.
Industry analysts had expected February sales to bounce back after a slight decline in January. One factor: Super Bowl ads. On Super Bowl Sunday, which was Feb. 7, website visits per dealership were four times higher than any other Sunday in all of 2015, according to Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Autotrader.com. Credit applications also hit single-day records last month.
Ford Chief Economist Emily Kolinski Morris said improving job and income growth, as well as low gas prices and low interest rates, are outweighing stock market volatility in consumers' minds. Buyers are confident, which is key for auto sales.
Proof of that confidence is everywhere. Sales of the Cadillac Escalade, an SUV that starts at $73,000, were up 22 percent over last February. Sales of Nissan's $30,000 Murano SUV nearly doubled; so did sales of the $89,000 Lexus LX SUV. Ford said it was the best February for van sales since 1979.
LMC is predicting sales of 17.8 million new vehicles this year, up from 17.46 million last year. But the growth rate is slowing from previous years, and many are expecting a plateau as U.S. demand peaks.
GM said its Chevrolet and GMC brands saw declines in February, but sales improved at Cadillac and Buick. GM's best seller, the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, had a 5 percent sales decline. GM sold 227,825 cars and trucks last month.
GM said it's trying to lower its reliance on rental sales, which are less profitable and can hurt vehicle resale values. The company said its sales to commercial and government fleets are up so far this year, but it has sold 30,000 fewer vehicles to rental fleets. Around 21 percent of the company's February sales went to fleets rather than individual buyers.
It was a different story at Ford. Its U.S. sales chief, Mark LaNeve, said Ford expects heavier fleet sales in the first four months of this year before they taper off. Thirty-six percent of Ford's U.S. sales went to fleets in February.
LaNeve defended that percentage, which is unusually high. At Toyota, for example, 16.5 percent of February sales went to fleets.
"We like this business. It's profitable for us, and we manage it very well," he said.
Ford's luxury Lincoln brand saw sales jump 30 percent after sales of its new MKX SUV more than doubled over last February. Sales of Ford's best seller, the F-Series pickup, were up 10 percent. Ford sold 217,192 vehicles.
Toyota's car sales dropped slightly, the victim of lower gas prices. Sales of the Prius hybrid were down 12 percent. But the company's truck and SUV sales rose 10 percent, partly due to strong sales of its luxury Lexus SUVs. Totota sold 187,954 vehicles last month.
Fiat Chrysler was led by the Jeep brand and the Ram pickup. Both reported sales increases of 23 percent. The company's truck sales rose 27 percent, but its car sales fell by the same percentage. Fiat Chrysler sold 149,188 trucks and SUVs last month but only 33,691 cars.
Honda bucked the industry with strong car sales. Sales of the Accord midsize sedan were up 20 percent, which helped make up for weaker sales at Honda's luxury Acura division. Honda sold 118,985 vehicles.
At Nissan, car sales were up nearly 8 percent, while truck and SUV sales rose 15 percent. Overall, the Nissan and Infiniti brands sold nearly 131,000 vehicles.
Hyundai's sales rose 1 percent on strong demand for the new Tucson SUV, which saw sales nearly double over last February. Hyundai sold 53,009 vehicles.
Volkswagen had a few winners. Sales of the Tiguan SUV were up 78 percent, while the German company's electric Golf also saw higher sales. But the brand's sales will likely continue to fall until it announces a fix for diesels that cheated on U.S. emissions standards. Volkswagen's U.S. sales totaled 22,231 in February.