DETROIT - Chrysler's U.S. sales jumped 40 percent in February, kicking off what is expected to be another strong month for automakers.
The company sold nearly 134,000 new cars and trucks as all of its brands showed at least double-digit increases.
Chrysler is the first automaker to report sales on Thursday. Analysts are forecasting a 3-percent increase for the industry, and all major automakers except General Motors Co. are expected to post higher sales. Smaller cars are expected to lead sales rise because gas prices spiked 30 cents during the month.
But if Chrysler Group LLC is any indication, larger cars and pickups will see sales rise, too. Sales of the Chrysler 200 midsize sedan more than quadrupled from a year earlier, while sales of its 300 full-size sedans rose more than five times. Ram pickup sales climbed 21 percent. Chrysler's tiny Fiat 500 had its best sales month ever. The company results were helped by an easy comparison with last February. Sales back then were relatively low because many of its revamped models were just arriving in showrooms.
Overall, industry analysts expect all automakers to sell nearly 1.1 million cars and trucks in the U.S. in February. The consulting firm LMC Automotive raised its forecast for annual sales to 14 million from 13.8 million based on strong sales in the first two months of 2012. That's up from 12.8 million last year.
After hitting a 30-year low in 2009, sales have risen the last two years. And the auto industry sees several trends that could lift sales further. The average car on U.S. roads is now a record 10.8 years, so there is an increasing need to replace older vehicles. Credit availability is improving, bringing more people back into the market. Japanese automakers have largely recovered from last year's earthquake and now have more cars to sell. And consumer confidence rose dramatically in February, making people more likely to consider a new car.
Including February, Chrysler has posted nine straight months of year-over-year gains of at least 20 percent.
Gas prices - which are up 45 cents since Jan. 1 and now average $3.73 a gallon - are causing a pronounced shift to smaller cars.
Erich Merkle, Ford's top U.S. sales analyst, says small cars made up around 19 percent of industry sales in December. That rose to 21 percent in January and is expected to rise to at least 24 percent in February, he says. Sales of the Ford Focus compact car have doubled since last year.