March 1, 2016 / 1:19 PM / a year ago

U.S. February auto sales jump 7 percent, no slowdown yet

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New Ford vehicles are seen at a parking lot of the Ford factory in Sao Bernardo do Campo February 12, 2015.Paulo Whitaker

DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. February auto sales soared to a 15-year high for the month, carmakers reported on Tuesday, in the latest sign of continued consumer confidence.

Auto sales last month rose about 7 percent, helped by low gasoline prices, available and low-interest credit and higher wages.

WardsAuto said February sales on an annualized basis was 17.43 million vehicles, down from 17.45 million in January but up from 16.32 million last February. Overall, WardsAuto said February sales of 1.34 million was 6.7 percent higher than a year ago.

Autodata Corp also counted 1.34 million in sales but said the increase from a year ago was 6.9 percent and the annualized sales rate for February was 17.54 million.

Despite gloomy talk about the economy on the U.S. presidential campaign trail, auto sales and other data released on Tuesday indicated the economy was regaining momentum.

Analysts have expressed concerns about a cyclical fall-off in vehicle sales after sustained gains since the 2008-2009 deep recession, but there were few signs of slowdown.

Ford Motor Co's (F.N) sales rose 20 percent as its SUV and crossover vehicles soared 28 percent from last February. F-Series pickup trucks, a leader in U.S. sales for more than three decades, gained 10 percent.

Ford stock was up 4.4 percent at $13.06.

Some 36 percent of Ford's sales were into fleets, which include sales to businesses, government, and rental agencies, up from 30 percent a year ago.

No. 1 General Motors Co (GM.N) reported that sales fell 1.5 percent. They would have been higher, GM said, if it did not cut shipments to rental companies by 16,500, or 39 percent, from a year earlier. GM shares were up 1.9 percent at $29.99.

Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T)(TM.N), No. 3 in the U.S. market, said sales rose 5 percent in the month. Its U.S.-traded shares, or ADRs, were up 2.2 percent to $106.42.

Jesse Hurwitz, a Barclays economist, said the strong auto sales indicated that "U.S. households fundamentally remain healthy. Labor markets have continued to improve, wages have started to rise modestly."

Sam Bullard, a Wells Fargo economist, said “Consumers, while still cautious overall, are confident enough in their own personal economic situation and the outlook to be able to purchase a car,” Bullard said.

U.S. manufacturing activity contracted in February, but there were signs the embattled sector was stabilizing. Also, construction spending surged in January to the highest since 2007.

A negative sign was a drop in sales for German luxury carmakers Mercedes-Benz of Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE), down 0.3 percent and BMW (BMWG.DE), down 11 percent.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU.N)(FCHA.MI) U.S. auto sales rose 12 percent on strength in its Jeep SUV and Ram trucks. Shares were up 7.3 percent at $7.15.

Sales at Honda Motor Co (7267.T)HMC.N jumped 13 percent.

Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) sales were up 10.5 percent.

But Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) sales, including its VW, Audi and Porsche brands, fell 7 percent. VW brand sales fell 13 percent. Audi rose 2 percent.

Last year, U.S. auto sales hit a record 17.4 million vehicles.

Additional reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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