US auto sales post modest gains in February

US auto sales grew four percent in February amid rising fuel prices, snowbound dealerships and uncertainty over the impact of looming government budget cuts on a fragile economy, data showed Friday.

The modest gains were weaker than the double-digit growth reported in recent months as the auto industry recovers from the 2008 crash and credit crunch that triggered a deep and painful recession.

But they were nonetheless a significant improvement.

The sales pace came in at an adjusted, annualized rate of 15.38 million vehicles, up from 15.29 million in January and 14.5 million in February 2012, according to Autodata.

Carmakers said the results boded well for continued growth this year.

"Despite rising gas prices, severe winter storms and concerns about the federal budget, February was a good indication of the overall strength of the market," said Toyota sales chief Bill Fay.

Toyota sales increased four percent to 166,377 vehicles, but Fay said rising fuel prices should favor the Japanese automaker's efficient vehicles in the coming months.

"Clearly, 2013 is off to a very good start for both General Motors and the industry as a whole," GM sales chief Kurt McNeil said in a conference call.

While concerns over the budget impasse may be having "some degree" of impact on consumer confidence, McNeil said that "quite frankly, we think that most of America is getting a little tired of hearing about some of this dysfunction."

"We think that the fundamentals are strong, and that is what is important and that is what is driving the economy," he added.

GM's sales rose seven percent to 224,314 vehicles to its best February since 2008, but the automaker said demand was somewhat constrained by major new vehicle launches in the coming months.

Ford led the pack with a nine percent gain to its best February performance since 2007 with 195,822 vehicles sold.

"As more new vehicle buyers continue returning to the marketplace, our fresh new product portfolio of fuel-efficient vehicles is winning over customers," Ford sales chief Ken Czubay said in a statement.

The second largest automaker also announced plans to boost its second quarter production by nine percent to 800,000 vehicles.

Chrysler posted its 35th straight month of gains as sales rose four percent to 139,015 vehicles.

The third largest automaker said its sales were curtailed as consumers waited for new models to reach the showrooms in the coming months. It expects first quarter sales to be lower than in 2012 as a result.

"In spite of a cautious ramp up of some of our most popular products which limited inventory last month, we still managed to record our strongest February sales in five years," said Chrysler sales chief Reid Bigland.

"Looking ahead, we expect to get our inventory gaps corrected over the next 90 days resulting in additional products contributing to our growth."

Honda blamed the weather for a two percent drop in February sales to 107,987 vehicles.

"It took a big winter storm in the Northeast to slow us down a bit, but our robust sales over the last three weeks show that our strong retail momentum continues," Honda sales chief John Mendel said.

Volkswagen, which is aggressively expanding in the US, posted its best February since 1973 as sales grew three percent to 31,456 vehicles.

"February's sales results and 30 consecutive months of growth reflects increasing consumer interest in our products," said Jonathan Browning, head of Volkswagen Group of America.

"With a full range of fu-efficient vehicles, seven of which deliver more than 40 mpg on the highway and the best start to a year in 29 years, we anticipate continued strong demand for our vehicles into the spring selling season."

Nissan's sales fell seven percent to 99,636 vehicles. Hyundai's sales rose two percent to 52,311 vehicles, while Kia sales fell eight percent to 41,505 vehicles.