US auto sales up in February despite snowy weather

DETROIT (AP) — Freezing temperatures and drifts of snow likely took a small bite out of U.S. auto sales in February, but most automakers still reported gains thanks to the strong economy.

General Motors’ sales rose 4.2 percent over last February, while Chrysler’s sales were up 5.6 percent. Nissan’s sales were up 2.7 percent. All three automakers reported smaller gains than analysts had predicted.

Ford’s U.S. sales were down 1.9 percent, as dealers lacked the inventory to meet demand for the new F-150 pickup truck.

All automakers report U.S. sales on Tuesday. Analysts had predicted an 8 percent increase over a year ago to nearly 1.3 million vehicles, based on the strength of the U.S. economy.

Falling unemployment, low interest rates and new versions of big sellers like the Jeep Cherokee — which saw sales jump 19 percent in February —drove buyers to dealerships in many cities. The forecasting firm LMC Automotive pushed up its 2015 forecast by 40,000 vehicles, based on strong demand. The firm is expecting U.S. sales to top 17 million this year for the first time since 2001.

Still, LMC said it became apparent as the month went along that bad weather in the mid-South and on the East Coast was hurting sales.

Colonial Volkswagen of Medford, Massachusetts, had almost no customers for a two-week period at the start of the month. Ken Cataldo, the dealership’s general manager, said he and his staff spent much of the time clearing snow from cars and moving them around the lot just north of Boston in order to plow snow away.

“It was the worst two weeks of my life in the car business,” said Cataldo, who’s been selling cars for 29 years.

As temperatures warmed at the end of the month, some customers came out of hibernation. Colonial ended up selling 75 cars, still short of its goal of 115 and the normal monthly sales of 130, Cataldo said. He’s hoping to make up for the lost sales this month.

“We’ve already put February in the rear-view mirror,” Cataldo said.

There were also obstacles to overcome on the other side of the country. LMC said a dispute that halted some shipments of car parts into West Coast shipyards may also have impacted sales. The impasse was settled on Feb. 21.

In California, gas prices soared to more than $3.30 per gallon after an explosion at a refinery; nationally, they rose around 30 cents per gallon. But the national average of $2.44 per gallon is still $1 less than a year ago, according to AAA.

Analysts said consumers and businesses still shopped for trucks and SUVs despite the higher gas prices. GM said sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup jumped 24 percent last month to 45,395.

But Kelley Blue Book said it expects consumers to start shifting back to cars and SUVs from Toyota and Honda, which are seen as more fuel efficient.

GM’s sales rose 4.2 percent to 231,378. It got a boost from big SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade, which saw sales nearly double over last February.

Chrysler sold 163,586 vehicles for its best February in eight years. Sales of the Jeep brand rose 21 percent increase as Americans continued their shift away from cars toward small and large SUVs.

Nissan’s sales rose 2.7 percent to 118,436, a February record for the Japanese automaker. Nissan was led by the Rogue small SUV with a 24.6 percent sales increase.

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