DETROIT - Hurricane Sandy gave an extra boost to already strong U.S. auto sales last month, although carmakers warned that uncertainty over the fiscal cliff could undo some of those gains.
Most major companies, from Toyota to Chrysler, posted impressive increases from a year earlier. Only General Motors was left struggling to explain its 3 percent sales gain and large inventory of unsold trucks.
Americans were already willing to buy a new car or truck last month because they're more confident in the economy. Home values are rising, hiring is up, and auto financing is readily available. Also, the average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is approaching a record 11 years, so many people are looking to replace older cars.
November sales, when calculated on an annual basis, are likely to be 15 million or more, the highest rate since March 2008, according to LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area consulting firm. That's higher than the 14.3 million annual rate so far this year, even though November is normally a lackluster month due to cold weather and holiday anticipation. Both GM and Chrysler predicted November sales would run at an annual rate of 15.3 million.
If sales end up at 15 million for the year, it would be a vast improvement over the 10.4 million during the recession in 2009. Sales would still fall short of the recent peak of around 17 million in 2005.
"Exactly how much growth we can expect next year will depend in part on how Congress and the president resolve the fiscal cliff issue," said Kurt McNeil, GM's U.S. sales chief. "Markets and consumers hate uncertainty."
GM tried to explain the automaker's disappointing performance. GM's biggest brand, Chevrolet, reported flat sales over last year despite new products such as the Spark minicar. Silverado pickup sales fell 10 percent.
GM's sales have been trailing the industry all year. They were up 4 percent through October, compared with the industry-wide increase of 14 percent.
Toyota said its 17 percent sales increase was partly due to post-Sandy demand. Honda was up 39 percent thanks to strong sales of the new Accord sedan and clearance deals on the outgoing Civic, which was replaced by a new 2013 Civic at the end of the month.