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A Strong Month for General Motors

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Between economic fears and Hurricane Irene, August was predicted to be a rough month for U.S. auto sales, but the reality wasn't so bad -- especially for the denizens of Detroit. Overall sales were up about 8% over year-ago figures, and while totals were comparable to July's somewhat lackluster figures, that wasn't necessarily bad news. The decline that some had feared failed to materialize.

A particularly good month for the General
's showy 31% gain grabbed headlines, but it's not really the big news , as the company's overhauled product line has been posting nice gains over last year's moribund totals for several months now. Instead, what got my attention (at least on the Detroit front) was General Motors' (NYSE: GM  ) 18% increase in sales. It's significant because the General showed solid results across the board, at a time when many of the company's products are coming due for a refresh:

  • Small cars, long an afterthought for GM and Detroit, continue to impress, with sales of the Chevrolet Cruze exceeding 20,000 for the fifth month in a row.
  • SUVs and crossovers were also strong, with big jumps in sales for the Terrain and Acadia, GMC's version of the company's popular kid-movers. Across the brand, GMC's sales were up a solid 40% year over year. Chevy's large Suburban and Tahoe SUVs also saw big jumps over year-ago volumes.
  • Truck sales were up 18% overall, a solid result given ongoing analyst concerns about GM's truck inventory (which has been large). GM reports a 107-day supply of trucks, still high but down from 115 at the end of July.

What's coming soon for the General? More small cars. Starting this month, the Cruze will be joined by the smaller Chevy Sonic, an all-new model aimed squarely at the Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) Fit and Ford's (NYSE: F  ) very successful new Fiesta. The Buick Verano, an upmarket small car based on the Cruze, will also debut before the end of the year.

Surprising demand for Ford
Speaking of small cars, Ford's selling an awful lot of them at the moment – so many, as I noted on Wednesday, that several hot models are in very short supply. Ford posted a respectable 11% year-over-year gain in August, but it's no secret that that number might well have been higher had the company had more Focuses, Fiestas, and Explorers available to dealers.

  • Year-over-year sales of the Focus compact were actually down, despite exceptional demand, due to short supplies. The smaller Fiesta also continued to sell very well, and Ford said on Thursday that it will increase production over the next quarter to meet demand.
  • The Explorer SUV continues its white-hot sales pace, with totals up 300% (not a typo!) over year-ago figures. The smaller Escape SUV saw a 39% increase, and its sales are up 30% year-to-date.
  • Trucks continue to lag a bit. Ford's truck sales were up 5% for the month, and 8% year-to-date. One bright spot is the Transit Connect, Ford's small commercial van: Sales were up 35% over year-ago numbers.

One interesting fact of note: 57% of Ford's big pickups now ship with a V6 engine, not a V8, as Ford's recent emphasis on viable fuel-efficient powertrains continues to pay dividends.

Strength for Hyundai, less for Japan
and its Kia affiliate together posted a 16% gain for the month, helped by Hyundai's strong Elantra and Sonata sedans and several sharply styled new entries from Kia -- and, no doubt, by ongoing supply issues at Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) and Honda. Toyota's sales were down almost 13% year-over-year as the company continues to get its earthquake-ravaged production chain back on track. But not all's bad for Toyota: The company expects to get back on track shortly, and plans to increase North American production in the fourth quarter by 15% over a year ago. Strong supply -- and strong incentives programs -- should help Toyota recover lost ground. Whether profits will follow is another question.

There's less to be optimistic about at Honda. While its recovery is continuing, the crucial new Civic compact got a poor reception from critics. Civic sales were down a massive 49% in August, indicating a problem that isn't just about inventory constraints. Honda, a company which not so long ago could do no wrong from a product perspective, is serving as a textbook example of what happens when an automaker's key vehicles fail to keep up with competition.

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Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. You can follow his auto-related musings on Twitter, where he goes by @jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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