DETROIT – The first full month of spring blossomed into an 8 percent increase in new vehicle sales, with General Motors showing more evidence that its ignition switch recall is not hurting sales, especially those of pickups, SUVs and crossovers.
Chrysler (up 14 percent), General Motors (up about 7 percent) , Toyota (up 13 percent) and Nissan (up 18 percent) posted robust gains, while Ford sales slipped about 1 percent from a year earlier.
Ford's sales report was eclipsed by the news that CEO Alan Mulally will retire July 1, and Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields, as expected, will replace him.
Subaru, showing sustained growth throughout the year, continued its hot streak with a nearly 22 percent increase. Honda's U.S. sales grew by about 1 percent.
GM gains were shared among all four brands. CEO Mary Barra said last week that an ignition switch recall of 2.6 million small cars, mostly from the 2003-07 model years, was having "no meaningful impact" on sales.
U.S. consumers bought 15.6 million new cars and trucks in 2013. The industry entered 2014 with expectations of selling more than 16 million cars for the first time since 2007. But sales dropped 3 percent in January and were flat in February. March started slowly, but finished with a flourish.
Some of the growth was fueled by better deals. In the highly profitable full-size pickup segment, GM incentives rose 16 percent in April from March, but Chrysler's Ram, which spent aggressively in March on rebates and discounted financing, reduced incentives by 22 percent in April. Ford, which is trying to clear out inventories of its 2014 F-150 trucks before launching the aluminum-body 2015 model late this year, spent 9 percent less on incentives in April, according to Barclays. Still, Ford sold a staggering 63,387 F-Series trucks, not much less than the 67,508 sales of all seven Ford car models.
"There's been a lot of volatility between some of the various different automakers in terms of making adjustments" to incentives, said Erich Merkle, Ford's sales analyst.
The shift from cars to trucks was clear in several companies' results. Pickups, SUVs and vans accounted for 78 percent of Chrysler's April sales, up from 67 percent in April 2013.
At Ford, car sales of its mainstream brand fell 8.5 percent while light-truck sales jumped 8 percent. Sales for the three car models of its Lincoln luxury brand fell 19 percent.
GM showed consistent improvement across segments with sales of light trucks and cars rising about 7 percent.
Chevrolet, whose discontinued Cobalt compact is at the heart of the recall, reported a 5 percent increase. Cadillac's sales also rose 5 percent. Buick's were up 12 percent, while GMC's sales increased 13 percent.
"Retail demand was steady in April, and truck sales and transaction prices were especially strong," said Kurt McNeil, GM's U.S. vice president of sales operations, said in a statement. "As we expected, the economy continues to strengthen."
Chrysler's monthly sales rose from a year earlier for the 49th consecutive month. Jeep was up 52 percent, while sales were flat for Dodge and tumbled 21 percent for the Chrysler brand.
The sales results suggest an underlying strength in the auto sales market that fueled an annualized selling rate of 16 million units, up from 15.2 million a year ago, according to Autodata Corp.
Online customer requests for new-vehicle information from automotive dealers rose 19 percent in April, according to Dealer.com, which advises U.S. auto dealers on marketing strategies. Those figures typically reflect consumers who are very close to buying a new vehicle.
The average transaction price for new vehicles rose 1 percent to $32,141 in April, according to Kelley Blue Book.
"The way things are progressing, it's really strong," said Dave Winslow, chief digital strategist at Dealer.com. "We don't see anyone backing away from higher purchase points."
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