DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. auto sales in the third quarter were the best in eight years, but mixed September results from leading automakers on Wednesday indicated the industry's torrid summer pace is slowing.
Industry sales in September rose 9 percent, to 1.24 million vehicles, according to research firm Autodata, just missing expectations of nine analysts surveyed by Reuters. The annualized sales rate slowed to 16.4 million, according to Autodata, above last year's 15.4 million, but well below the 17.5 million pace in August.
"The rate of growth in industry sales is beginning to moderate," Ford chief economist Emily Kolinski Morris said on a conference call. "We are getting closer to what would be a likely plateau in terms of the industry sales pace."
General Motors Co (GM.N), Fiat SpA's Chrysler Group FIA.MI, Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), Honda Motor Co (7267.T), Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) and Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS) all reported year-to-year sales gains on Wednesday, but Ford Motor Co (F.N) said sales fell slightly from a year ago. And while Toyota's and Honda's sales were up, both companies missed analysts' forecasts.
Third-quarter sales were "the best for the industry since 2006," said Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager.
In September, Ford sales fell 3 percent, to 180,175, as the automaker slowed production of the F-150 pickup truck, the best-selling vehicle in America, to prepare for the launch of the redesigned 2015 model. Analysts surveyed by Reuters expected a similar decline.
F-150 sales dipped 1 percent, with Ford's small cars and crossovers showing bigger declines. Ford's Lincoln brand jumped 13 percent, bolstered by the new MKC compact crossover.
GM sales increased 19 percent, to 223,437, about what analysts predicted. The automaker's full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups soared 47 percent to 66,939. GM's premium Cadillac brand was flat.
Chrysler said sales rose 19 percent, to 169,890. Analysts expected a 17 percent rise. Its Jeep and Ram brands were up 47 percent and 35 percent, respectively, but sales of Jeep Grand Cherokee fell 14 percent.
Toyota sales increased 2 percent, to 167,279, but analysts had forecast a 7 percent gain. The company said SUVs and crossovers helped to drive its results. Toyota's premium Lexus brand was up 7 percent.
Honda sales were up 7 percent, to 118,223, versus analysts' expectations of a 15 percent hike. The mid-size Accord sedan helped drive sales, with a 25 percent gain, but Civic sales dropped 7 percent. Honda's premium Acura brand was up 14 percent.
Nissan sales climbed 19 percent, to 102,955. Analysts looked for a 15 percent increase. The company's premium Infiniti brand fell 13 percent, while sales of the Nissan Leaf electric car jumped 48 percent.
Some analysts were concerned that generous consumer deals, including hefty discounts, low lease rates and zero-percent financing, are stealing demand from the future.
Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds.com, the car shopping website, had a different take: "Automakers have struck the right chord by putting more emphasis on leases and opening credit to a larger cross-section of buyers. Expect the same trends to continue through the end of the year."
On Tuesday, reports showed U.S. consumer confidence fell in September for the first time in five months, and home prices in July rose less than expected from a year earlier, underscoring the unsteady nature of U.S. economic growth.
Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Matthew Lewis