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Americans bought new cars and trucks in September at the fastest pace in more than four years.

The21 car companies in the U.S. market reported 1.19 million sales, whichequals a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of 14.94 million, salestracker Autodata calculates. That trumps the 13.14 million a year agoand is best since 15.11 million in March 2008.

Even ho-hum resultsfrom General Motors and Ford Motor have optimistic explanations:They're selling as many vehicles as they did a year ago, when they wereable to exploit shortages among Japanese-brand automakers caused by thetsunami in Japan and flooding in Thailand.

"That's pretty good.It's a healthy market, and there still are people waiting on thesidelines" who'll buy new vehicles if they sense economic stability,says Jesse Toprak, head of market intelligence at TrueCar.com, aconsulting and auto-pricing company.

Still, Ford and GM are dying in troubled Europe, so they need very healthy North American sales to balance overseas losses.

"Theusual suspects are behind the continued relative strength" innew-vehicle sales: a "light recovery in the housing markets, stable (ifuninspiring) levels of employment, easing credit availability ... andthe need to replace aging cars," investment analyst Brian Johnson atBarclays wrote to clients Tuesday.

The average age of vehicles onthe road is about 11 years, according to data from Polk, which tracksvehicle registrations. That's old enough to be running up big repairbills and making new cars and their warranties, extended-serviceintervals and safety features very appealing.

Also, data fromPolk, J.D. Power and Associates and TrueCar.com all show younger buyersreturning to the market at a faster clip than expected. They are thefoundation of automakers' sales and earnings growth as they get olderand more well-off and move up through pricier models.

"I'm not worried about this running out of steam anytime soon," Toprak says.

Highlights:

  • Chrysler Group was the Detroit champ, performing "beyond expectations, with all brands posting sales higher than a year ago," notes Edmunds.com analyst Michelle Krebs. Its sales were up 12% from a year ago, best since pre-recession 2007.
  • General Motors inched ahead 1.5% as car sales jumped and truck sales stumbled, leaving GM with an outsize 116-day supply of full-size pickups. At best, that's enough to keep dealers supplied as GM shifts to production of the next-generation pickups next year. At worst, it's a glut that'll require big, profit-eating discounts.
  • Ford Motor barely held even, down 0.2%. Ford points to big increases in small-car sales, best since 2002.
  • Toyota and Honda sales zoomed, showing no lingering troubles from the tsunami and flooding.
  • Nissan relied on trucks to keep sales from falling more than the 1.1% they did. Nissan suffered the least of the major Japan brands during the natural disasters, so its comparison is to a stronger sales period than Honda and Toyota.
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