DETROIT – Ford, GM, Chrysler and Nissan all reported double-digit U.S. sales increases last month, signaling the best April for car and truck sales in six years.
Strong demand for the Ram pickup truck drove Chrysler's sales up 11 percent, while the Escape small SUV and F-Series pickup helped Ford to an 18 percent gain. GM benefited from strong pickup truck sales. Nissan sales rose 23 percent over April of 2012.
The only laggard was Volkswagen, with a sales decline of 10 percent.
The gains are another sign that Americans continue to buy cars and trucks despite high unemployment and mixed economic signals. All automakers report monthly sales Wednesday, and industry analysts expect an overall increase of around 10 percent over April of last year. That would make it the best April since 2007.
Chrysler said it sold 156,698 cars and trucks last month, led by the Ram pickup with sales of 31,409. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV also posted strong numbers with sales up 27 percent to just over 15,000. Dodge brand sales rose 18 percent, with the Dart compact car posting its best month ever with sales of nearly 8,100. But the Chrysler brand struggled in April with sales falling 13 percent.
Ford Motor Co. sold 212,584 cars and trucks, led by the redesigned Escape with a 52 percent increase. F-Series sales were up 24 percent as demand for pickups continued to rebound.
General Motors reported sales of 237,646 cars and trucks, let by Silverado pickups with a gain of 28 percent.
Nissan sales rose 23 percent on increased demand for the recently redesigned Altima and Sentra. Nissan took a step to boost futures numbers as well. It announced price cuts on seven models that make up 65 percent of its U.S. sales. The cuts run from $580 on the top-selling Altima midsize car to $4,400, on the Armada big SUV.
VW had the only sales drop so far. Sales of its top-seller, the Passat midsize car, fell 10 percent.
Chrysler predicted that total U.S. sales will hit an annual rate of 15.4 million in April. That's a little higher than most analysts' predictions. April is likely to be the sixth straight month of sales above a 15 million yearly pace.
Barring an unexpected event that causes a real estate price collapse or rapidly rising job losses, there's little to stop sales from growing further in the next few years, industry analysts say.
"I don't see any significant hurdles on the horizon," said Alec Gutierrez, a senior market analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "I don't see us taking a step back, provided the unemployment rate at least holds steady."
He expects U.S. auto sales to end the year around 15.3 million cars and trucks, up 5.5 percent from last year's 14.5 million.
U.S. unemployment stands at a stubbornly high 7.6 percent, but that hasn't slowed auto sales much.
Aside from unemployment, almost every factor that affects car and truck sales is positive. Interest rates are low — the average four-year loan on a new car is 2.4 percent, according to Bankrate.com. Also, credit is widely available, even to those with low scores. Used-car values are high, so car buyers can get good money when they trade in their old cars. Lease deals are good. Gas prices have fallen since February.
In addition, home-building is on the rise, up 7 percent from February to March. That usually means better sales of big pickup trucks as companies and laborers return to the market. Kelley Blue Book expects big pickup sales to rise more than 26 percent in April over a year ago.
Many businesses and consumers need to replace older trucks and cars. The average age of a U.S. vehicle is 11.2 years. Plus, automakers have rolled out dozens of exciting new models in the past year, drawing buyers into showrooms.
"Relatively lower gas prices coupled with small business demand improving for trucks resulted in a strong showing for small and large pickups in April," said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for the TrueCar.com auto pricing site.
One category that's soaring is small crossover SUVs. Sales are expected to rise 22.5 percent, according to Kelley Blue Book. Fuel-efficient models such as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 are driving sales up, Gutierrez said.
Kelley Blue Book estimates that auto prices fell slightly in April compared with a year ago, to an average of $31,326.