American car buying surged in February, reaching an annualized pace of 15 million units for the first time since the recession.
Several forces combined in the stronger-than-expected showing by the auto industry: an improving economy, carmakers eager to lure buyers with incentives, and mild winter weather.
Not least, rising gasoline prices prompted consumers to pull out their checkbooks for fuel-efficient vehicles. In hot demand were cars like the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, and Volkswagen's diesel-fuel models.
The 15 million sales pace was a big jump from the 14.1 million annualized rate seen a month earlier, and the 13.2 million seen last February, according to Ward's Automotive.
Sales haven't been above the 15 million mark since early 2008, in the beginning stage of the recession that deepened later that year, resulting in an auto industry crisis and a federal bailout.
It's too early to tell if car sales will maintain February's momentum. Some industry analysts have called for sales to come in close to 14 million for the full calendar year.
But the strong month reveals at least some pent-up demand, after a long period in which US households have hunkered down and conserved cash.
For some, the worry about rising gas prices outweighed questions about whether they're ready to buy a new car. Gas prices have jumped some 30 cents over the past month, to a national average of $3.73 per gallon.
All the major carmakers showed improvement, with Chrysler and Ford showing greater strength than General Motors. Luxury cars did particularly well, said Michelle Krebs, a senior industry analyst at Edmunds.com.
"The wealthy seem to be feeling even more confident than the general public," Ms. Krebs said in a statement that Edmunds released Thursday. "The same economic factors that impact all consumers and encourage them to buy cars are exponential with wealthy buyers, who likely are very weary of the recession and are ready to spend."