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Carmakers see spring thaw as U.S. auto sales up 8 percent in April

Chrysler Group assembly staff works below a 2014 Dodge Ram pickup truck at the Warren Assembly Plant in Warren, Michigan December 11, 2013.
Chrysler Group assembly staff works below a 2014 Dodge Ram pickup truck at the Warren Assembly Plant in Warren, Michigan December 11, 2013.

By Bernie Woodall and Paul Lienert

DETROIT (Reuters) - The U.S. auto industry in April rebounded sharply from a bitter and extended winter, with car sales rising 8 percent from the previous year.

Six of the top seven automakers reported year-to-year sales gains on Thursday, but only four topped analysts' expectations.

The industry delivered 1.39 million cars in April, up 8 percent from the previous year, according to research firm Autodata Corp.

Tapping consumer demand that began to increase as the bad weather broke in late March, General Motors Co , Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>, Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> and Hyundai Motor Co <005380.KS> beat expectations, with Toyota and Nissan both posting double-digit increases.

Chrysler Group LLC, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles , also registered a double-digit sales gain in April, but narrowly missed expectations, as did Ford Motor Co whose April sales slipped 1.0 percent. Honda Motor Co <7267.T>, up 1 percent, also missed.

"Sales momentum from March rolled into April, pushing the industry to its best back-to-back monthly sales pace since the fall of 2007," said Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota brand.

Toyota group sales, including the Lexus and Scion brands, totaled 199,660, up 13 percent. Nissan sales, including Infiniti, were a record 103,934, up 18 percent. Honda sales, including Acura, were 132,456.

Chrysler said U.S. auto sales rose 14 percent to 178,652. GM said sales increased 7.0 percent to 254,076. Ford sales fell to 211,126.

Combined Hyundai and Kia sales in April climbed 8 percent to 119,783.

April was seen as a second strong month in a row, after the cold and snowy weather in January and February dampened car buyers' enthusiasm.

"The economy continues to strengthen," said Kurt McNeil, head of GM's U.S. sales operations. "Retail demand was steady in April, and truck sales and transaction prices were especially strong."

The industry sold cars at an annual rate of 16.04 million in April, according to Autodata. Economists polled earlier by Reuters expected the industry's annual sales rate in April to come in at 16.2 million vehicles, which would be slightly slower than March.

Negative publicity over GM's recall earlier this year of 2.6 million vehicles linked to 13 deaths does not appear to have had a significant impact on the company's image or the appeal of its brands to U.S. consumers, said Larry Dominique, executive vice president at industry researcher TrueCar.

The GM recall, for which the automaker took a $1.3-billion writedown in the first quarter, is "almost a bigger industry story than a consumer story," Dominique said.

GM BRANDS POST INCREASES

All four of GM's U.S. brands reported year-to-year increases in April. Chevrolet and Cadillac were each up 5.0 percent, Buick jumped 12 percent, and GMC rose 13 percent.

Sales at both the Ford and Lincoln brands declined in April - Ford down 0.3 percent and Lincoln off 11 percent.

Sales at Chrysler's Jeep line, which is to be the primary global brand of a merged Fiat and Chrysler expected later this year, rose 52 percent in April from a year earlier.

Jeep U.S. sales of 205,593 in the first four months of the year were 46 percent higher than a year earlier. Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne has set a target of 1 million sales globally for Jeep for the year.

Sales of large pickups remained strong in April, driven by hefty discounts from manufacturers and dealers.

Chrysler's Ram truck sales rose 17 percent to 36,674. Ford's best-selling F-series pickup climbed 7.0 percent to 63,387, the best April tally since 2006. GM's Chevrolet Silverado jumped 9 percent to 42,755.

Two of the best-selling green cars in the country, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, have had mixed results this year, although sales for both picked up in April.

The battery-powered Leaf saw sales rise 8 percent to 2,088, with year-to-date sales up 33 percent to 7,272. Sales of the Volt gasoline-electric hybrid were up 19 percent in April to 1,548, but year-to-date sales are off 7 percent to 5,154.

Sales among smaller manufacturers were mixed. Volkswagen AG , whose brands include Audi and Porsche, reported sales down 1 percent to 50,556.

(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Jeffrey Benkoe, Andrew Hay and Cynthia Osterman)

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