Reuters

(Reuters)

Auto Sales Shrug Off Gas Spike

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Ford Motor Co (F)  and Chrysler Group LLC reported gains in auto sales in February, helped by American drivers' need to replace aging cars and trucks and a rise in consumer confidence.

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The sales gains came even as gas prices shot up last month, when American consumers sought out smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Sales of Ford's Focus small car more than doubled.

"A few years ago, higher fuel prices were a major threat to our total vehicle sales whereas today, those higher prices have become far less of an issue," Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales for Chrysler, said in a statement.

Chrysler also predicted that the annualized rate of sales for February would be around 14.9 million units, including medium and heavy trucks, well above the high end of analysts' expectations.

Ford sold 179,119 cars and trucks in February, up 14% from last year's levels. Chrysler, the U.S. automaker majority-owned by Fiat SpA, sold 133,521 cars and trucks last month, up 40% from last February's levels.

Volkswagen AG sold 30,577 vehicles, up 42.5%. New vehicle sales at Nissan Motor Co were up 15% at 106,731 last month.

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 In February, average U.S. gasoline prices rose 30 cents per gallon to $3.73 for regular grade, which is extremely high for a winter month, according to the AAA motor club.

On average, 38 analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect February sales to hit an annualized pace of 14 million vehicles. That would be up from 13.3 million a year earlier.

At the high end of expectations -- at 14.4 million -- February could represent the biggest total since April 2008, before the financial crisis that sent Detroit into a tailspin.

U.S. auto sales have benefited in recent months from consumers' need to replace aging vehicles, which many had put off during the depths of the economic downturn.