DETROIT (AP) - Automakers posted big U.S. sales gains in February as consumers returned to showrooms after a snowy January.
Ford's sales rose 20 percent over last February, while Fiat Chrysler's were up 12 percent. Nissan's sales rose nearly 11 percent.
General Motors said its sales fell 1.5 percent, partly due to a 39-percent decrease in sales to rental car companies. GM is trying to lower its reliance on rental sales, which are less profitable and can hurt vehicle resale values.
Industry analysts had expected February sales to bounce back after a slight decline in January. Consulting firm LMC Automotive consulting firm 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 report their monthly sales figures on Tuesday.
"Consumers seem to be shrugging off the volatility in the stock market and higher interest rates," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC. "Very low fuel prices and many new vehicles in showrooms should help drive another strong year for auto sales."
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.
In the meantime, proof of consumers' continued spending power is everywhere. Sales of the Cadillac Escalade, an SUV that starts at $73,000, were up 22 percent over last February. Nissan's $30,000 Murano SUV saw an 86-percent jump in sales.
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, saw a 5-percent sales decline. GM sold 227,825 cars and trucks last month.
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.
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.
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.
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