Is it possible that the U.S. economy really is improving after all?

It's certainly looking up. As predicted, November was a strong sales month for autos, with U.S. car and light-truck sales up almost 17% year over year. That was enough to lift the "SAAR" -- the adjusted annualized rate of vehicle sales, a widely watched indicator -- over the 12 million mark for the second month in a row.

That's still a far cry from the 16 million that was routine in the years before the economic crisis, but it's a welcome sign of strength for the recovering auto companies.

At least, for most of them.

A lot of winners, and one loser
Nearly all of the key players in the U.S. market save one (more on that in a minute) saw double-digit sales gains in November. As predicted, Ford (NYSE: F) and Honda (NYSE: HMC) posted gains more than 20%, Hyundai turned in an exceptional performance (a 45% gain), and Chrysler showed more signs of life with a 16% gain, thanks to (finally!) the arrival of some fresh products in showrooms.

And what of General Motors (NYSE: GM)? GM's results were better than expected, but how much better depends on your perspective. Looked at on a companywide level, GM trailed the industry average with an 11% gain. However, GM likes to cite its "core brand" results, comparing results for its four surviving U.S. brands to those brands' results a year ago. Those were quite solid -- up 21% on surging sales of the company's popular crossovers and SUVs, as well as nice gains for popular cars like the Cadillac CTS and a strong start for the new Chevy Cruze.

More happy days for Ford
There was certainly nothing wrong with Ford's results, as the Blue Oval turned in a balanced performance with increases across the board. Ford's PR people have given up on keeping track of the company's streak of monthly market-share increases, but they did note that the company is on track to gain market share for the second year in a row -- something it hasn't done since 1993.

More to the point, Ford is seeing continued strength in sales of key models. Sales of the midsize Fusion sedan were up 28% over solid year-ago numbers, the just-refreshed Edge crossover was up 55%, and the bread-and-butter F-150 pickup was up 26%.

Truck sales were up for most of the automakers -- Chrysler saw a whopping 86% boost for its mainstay Ram pickup -- with heavy-duty truck sales as a whole up 17% so far this year. That's an interesting trend with gas still around $3 a gallon, but it's a good sign of increasing economic confidence among households and small businesses.

The one that fell behind
As expected, Toyota (NYSE: TM) was the one company that fell behind in a strong month. The battered Japanese giant's sales dropped 3.3%, led by a sizable 17% drop in sales of its cars.

Toyota executives blamed the drop on a shift in buyers' focus toward trucks and SUVs. I have two responses to that:

  • That "shift" didn't hurt Toyota's key rivals. Honda, with a lineup that's at least as car-focused as Toyota's, was up 21%. Ford saw a 25% gain in cars alone.
  • I think Toyota has some other problems that need attention.

Toyota is obviously still suffering a hangover from the recall debacles earlier this year, and I think it's also being hurt by a product lineup that's starting to look stale. While the company is doing a much better job of managing the PR around their ongoing recalls (including Tuesday's eye-opening worldwide recall of 650,000 Priuses to repair a coolant pump defect), Toyota's reputation for impeccable quality has taken a big hit. That reputation was a key selling point for the brand, and it isn't coming back anytime soon.

Want to read more about Ford? Add it to My Watchlist, which will find all of our Foolish analysis on the Dearborn dynamo.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford, which is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. You can 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.