Automakers reported sales of 1.3 million vehicles last month, a year-over-year gain of 20 percent and a pace that translates to selling 14.52 million units in 2012. That would surpass last year's sales figures by approximately 2 million units and place the industry on track for its best year since 2007, the year before the nation plunged into recession.
Experts are touting the better-than-expected sales figures as a sign of a strengthening American economy, particularly for the moribund housing market. Demand for full-size pickups rose by 16 percent and accounted for a larger portion of overall U.S. vehicle sales. August can often be a robust month as dealers are motivated to clear out the previous model year vehicles from their lots to make room for the new models that begin arriving in September.
Pickups are considered a barometer of the housing industry because construction crews routinely require larger vehicles for hauling equipment and supplies. Sales of new homes rose 3.6 percent in July, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
Ford reported a 19.3 percent increase in sales of its F-series pickups. Chrysler's sales of its Ram ticked up by 18.7 percent year over year, and General Motors said sales of the Chevrolet Silverado inched ahead by 4 percent. The Toyota Tundra saw sales rise 68 percent.
"Businesses don't usually go buy a fleet of trucks unless they have good reason to believe that business will be ramping up," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of auto-pricing service TrueCar.com.
Gas-conscious shoppers drove demand in vehicles both large and small.
Within Ford's popular F-150 pickup lineup, vehicles with V-6 engines now represent 54 percent of the model's sales compared with 46 percent for the once-sacrosanct V-8. In July, the EcoBoost V-6 engines accounted for 43 percent of all F-150 sales.
"As fuel prices rose again in August, we saw growing numbers of people gravitate toward our fuel-efficient vehicles – cars, utilities and trucks," said Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service. "Customers increasingly value savings at the pump."
Smaller vehicles, such as the Chevy Volt, were also a hit with consumers as gas prices rose again in August. The hybrid recorded its best month of sales ever, notching 2,831 sales. Sales of the Ford Focus rose 35 percent year over year.
Ford reported overall sales gains of 13 percent for the month, while Chrysler boosted sales by 14 percent. General Motors sales rose more than 10 percent year over year. Foreign automakers fared even better.
Continuing a fast recovery from the aftermath of last year's tsunami and nuclear accident, Japanese automakers posted whopping gains. Toyota reported a year-over-year sales increase of 45 percent and Honda said sales jumped 59 percent. But neither could claim the title of best turnaround. That went to Volkswagen – the German automaker increased sales by 62 percent compared to the same period last year.
The industry's recovery has meant more jobs at automotive plants throughout the country. Among the highlights:
Ford has added a third shift at its Louisville Assembly Plant to hasten production of its Escape crossover vehicle after sales rose 37 percent in August. In addition, the Dearborn, Mich.-based carmaker said it would build 725,000 vehicles in the fourth quarter of 2012, a 7 percent increase over its 2011 figures.
The all-new Dodge Dart sedan sold 3,045 units in August, and Chrysler has ramped up production of the vehicle at its Belvidere, Ill. Assembly plant. Hyundai has added a third shift at its Montgomery, Ala. Assembly plant to boost production of its Sonata and Elantra offerings, a move that added 800 workers.