* Sales jump 2.6 pct vs estimate of 0.9 pct gain
* New orders fall 4 pct, inventories at 4-year high
OTTAWA, April 16 (Reuters) - Canadian factory sales surged in February at the fastest pace in 20 months, an encouraging sign for the economy after a downturn in January, although the number of new orders fell in the month, Statistics Canada said on Tuesday.
Manufacturing sales jumped 2.6 percent due to strength in auto assembly, food processing, petroleum and coal and miscellaneous sectors, the agency said, noting that higher prices explained much of the gain in the energy industry.
The performance beat market expectations of a 0.9 percent increase and was the biggest since July 2011. Still, the sales total of C$49.6 billion ($48.6 billion) was below the pre-recession peak of C$53 billion.
Overall, sales grew across 14 of 21 industries and excluding the auto sector they climbed 1.8 percent. In volume terms, sales were up a healthy 2.5 percent in February.
But new orders for factory goods slid 4 percent due to a decline in demand from the volatile aerospace industry while unfilled orders rose 0.4 percent.
Manufacturers continued to build inventories, with stockpiles swelling 0.9 percent to their highest level in nearly four years. As a result, the inventory-to-sales ratio eased to 1.33 in February from 1.36 in January.