DETROIT -- U.S. automakers are reporting monthly sales gains in February that have industry analysts more convinced than before that the industry is on track to set another sales record.
Ford sold 20.4 percent more new vehicles in February than a year earlier, with fleet customers buying 36 percent of those vehicles. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles posted a 12 percent gain, while General Motors sales fell 1.5 percent as it cut back on fleet sales.
Toyota's sales rose 5.2 percent on strong sales of its RAV4 compact SUV (up 16 percent), the 4Runner midsize SUV (up 32 percent) and the Tacoma midsize pickup truck (up 14.5 percent). The Lexus luxury brand was up 1 percent.
Nissan Group posted a 10.5 percent increase, fueled by a 12.9 percent improvement at its Nissan division that more than offset an 11 percent decline at the Infiniti luxury brand. American Honda sales jumped 12.8 percent as its top selling car models, the Civic and Accord, rose 32 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
Hyundai reported a 1 percent sales increase on the strength of the Sonata midsize sedan and sales of the Tucson crossover utility vehicle nearly doubled to 7,336.
Low gas prices, easy credit and the quadrennial calendar quirk that is Leap Day helped boost sales. There also were February sales along the Atlantic seaboard that were deferred from January when a massive winter storm hit that region and caused some dealerships to close for several days.
"February had an extra day this year, but that alone can't account for the massive new-vehicle sales reported last month," said Kelley Blue Book Senior Analyst Karl Brauer. "We're seeing some manufacturers rely more heavily on incentives compared to a year ago, yet the fundamental factors, including pent-up demand, increasing consumer confidence and easy credit, remain in place."
IHS Automotive predicts Americans will buy or lease 17.8 million new vehicles this year, up from last year's record-setting 17.5 million.
Ford sold more than 60,000 F-Series pickup trucks, up 10 percent from February 2015, while sales of the Edge crossover utility nearly doubled to 12,455. It also relied heavily on sales to fleet customers for more than a third of sales last month -- 36 percent compared with 30 percent a year earlier.
Within those fleet sales, Ford's sales to daily rental companies increased to 19 percent in February compared with 12 percent for the same month a year ago.
Generally fleet sales are less profitable to automakers because they don't include many higher-trim packages with the latest options that add to the price of vehicles sold to consumers.
Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president for U.S. marketing, sales and service, said the company's fleet sales are increasing now because it can build passenger cars and F-150 pickups now than it could last year.
"The timing of fleet deliveries is a product of two things," LaNeve said. "One is when the fleet customers want them and when do we have capacity to provide them."
For the year, LaNeve said, Ford's overall mix of fleet and retail sales will only increase slightly and said the percent of Ford's sales to daily rental companies will be about the same as it was in 2015.
While GM's overall sales fell, it did not depend as much on fleet sales. Its retail sales actually grew 6.6 percent.
Buick sales were up 2.3 percent, Cadillac sales edged up 0.9 percent. But GMC slipped 6.8 percent and Chevrolet was down by 0.7 percent
Sales of Chevrolet Silverado fell 5 percent, while GMC Sierra sales were flat, posting a 0.3 percent increase.
But Chevy's new Malibu did well with sales of 21,418, up 53 percent from a year earlier.
After record sales of 17.5 million vehicles in 2015, the industry is expected to slightly exceed that record this year.
FCA posted its 71st consecutive monthly gain from a year earlier as Jeep and Ram brands led the way. By brand, sales soared 27 percent for Ram and 23 percent for Jeep while Dodge sales rose 12 percent. However, sales fell 26 percent for Chrysler and 9 percent for Fiat.