September auto sales were so strong in the United States that even Volkswagen squeezed out a small gain -- despite halting sales of its diesel cars because of an emissions test-rigging scandal.
Volkswagen's U.S. division said it sold 26,141 vehicles in September, up by a scant 145 cars from the number it sold in the same month a year earlier.
Volkswagen's Audi brand, whose A3 diesel version is its only model caught up in the emissions-rigging scandal, was mostly unaffected. Audi reported that domestic sales in September increased 16.2 percent to 17,340 vehicles.
"Volkswagen's deception is dominating headlines, but it is not keeping shoppers away from other brands' showrooms," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at auto information company Edmunds.com.
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Automakers sold more than 1.4 million vehicles in the United States in September, a 15.8 percent gain from the same month a year earlier, according to Autodata Corp., an industry research firm.
General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan all posted double-digit increases.
"It is an incredibly robust market," said Beth Ann Bovino, senior economist at Standard & Poor's corporate credit rating agency. "Considering there are still so many older vehicles on the road, the market might not be tapped out."
Auto shopping company TrueCar.com thinks automakers will sell 17.4 million vehicles in the United States this
year and could approach the industry record of the same amount set in 2000.
Others in the industry are projecting sales of well above 17 million, which would make it the second-best year ever.
Attractive new products, especially crossovers and small sport utility vehicles, are helping drive the growth along with advanced technology, said Akshay Anand, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
"Cars continue to get safer and smarter, with hosts of new features every single year," Anand said.
Many economic factors point to continued strength in auto sales, Bovino said. The economy has gained 250,000 jobs a month for the past year.
"We also have seen younger buyers coming into the market," Bovino said. "They weren't there during the recession and weaker part of the recovery."
Consumers age 20-37 now account for about 27 percent of total car sales, up from 18 percent in 2010.
Construction trades, an important source of truck purchases, also are contributing to the auto sales boom, Bovino said, noting that housing starts reached 1 million in 10 of the last 12 months and U.S. construction spending rose 0.7 percent in August.
Ford's F-series pickup truck sales rose nearly 17 percent last month compared to a year earlier. GM's truck sales, including its full- and medium-size pickups, rose 18 percent.
Low gas prices also are fueling auto sales, said Mark Wakefield, head of the automotive practice at the AlixPartners consulting firm.
"As they stay low longer people buy new vehicles or buy bigger vehicles," Wakefield said.
Prices are falling even in California, which has some of the most expensive gasoline in the nation. The state average stood at $2.96 a gallon for regular Thursday, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California, 6.1 cents less than last week.
General Motors' September sales rose 12.5 percent, to 251,310 vehicles, compared with a year earlier, Autodata said.
Ford had a bigger gain. The automaker said its monthly sales jumped 23.3 percent, to 221,269 vehicles.
FCA, which owns Chrysler and Fiat, said sales rose 13.6 percent, to 193,019 vehicles. It was the company's best September sales since 2000.
Toyota had September U.S. sales of 194,399 vehicles, a 16.2 percent increase.
Honda said sales rose 13.1 percent to 133,750 vehicles last month, a September U.S. record for the Japanese company.
Nissan posted sales of 121,782 vehicles, an 18.3 percent gain and also a September record.
Automakers are optimistic sales will continue to grow. "The economy still has room to grow, and so do auto sales," said Mustafa Mohatarem, GM's chief economist.
Volkswagen, however, might not do as well in future months, analysts said.