The Lordstown-built Chevy Cruze continued its winning ways last month, ranking as the top-selling General Motors car and falling just short of another record-setting month for U.S. sales.
Sales numbers released Tuesday showed the Cruze had a 43 percent increase in September over the same month last year. U.S. buyers took delivery on 25,787 Cruzes last month, almost 7,700 more than in September 2011.
''The Cruze came very close to setting a new record,'' U.S. vice president of Chevrolet Sales and Service Don Johnson said Tuesday during a company conference call. ''It really goes to the strength of the entire car portfolio right now. There's just a continued good value story with the Cruze's great design and great fuel efficiency.''
Johnson said he believes fuel efficiency becomes a factor, not due only to higher fuel prices but more because of the volatility of prices at the pump.
In Warren, Diane Sauer of Diane Sauer Chevrolet said the fuel efficiency of the Cruze definitely is a deciding factor for local buyers.
''I think all the positive publicity that the Cruze gets has been a big factor,'' Sauer said, noting the compact was her best-selling model last month as well. ''The Cruze hasn't been incentivized that much, and it still continues to sell.''
Reduced incentives aren't specific only to the Cruze. Average incentives among all makes were down almost 7 percent from this time last year, averaging $2,468 in September, according to the TrueCar.com auto pricing site.
The Cruze had set an all-time sales record in August when 25,975 buyers took delivery.
Cruze was outsold in the General Motors lineup only by the Siverado pickup truck at 36,425. The truck, however, experienced a large drop in sales, down 17 percent from September 2011's sales of 43,698. GM attributed the weak truck sales to reduced purchases by rental companies.
Overall, General Motors reported a 1.5 percent increase in U.S. September sales company wide over September 2011.
Tuesday's statistics showed Americans were finding plenty of reasons to buy new cars from most automakers in September. Sales rose the most at Toyota and Volkswagen, which reported gains of more than 30 percent.
Buyers needed to replace aging cars, banks offered cheap loans, and auto companies rolled out a promising lineup of fuel-efficient models. Beneath that, buyers felt more confident about the jobs market, a key factor influencing car sales.
Toyota sales rose 42 percent from a year earlier, while Volkswagen jumped 34 percent from September 2011. Detroit didn't fare as well. Chrysler reported a 12 percent increase and Ford sales were flat. Nissan, which has been hurt as Toyota and Honda recover from last year's earthquake in Japan, saw sales fall 1.1 percent.
Total U.S. sales in September were expected to rise to more than 1.1 million vehicles, up 11 percent from September of 2011. Most analysts expect an annual rate around 14.5 million. Chrysler's U.S. sales chief Reid Bigland said September sales for the industry could reach an annualized rate of nearly 15 million, making it the best month since March of 2008.
Chrysler reported its best September since 2007. Ford's sales, however, were flat compared with a year earlier. Ford said big gains in small car and SUV sales were wiped out by lower truck sales. GM also reported declining truck sales, but a jump in car sales offset that drop.
A midsize sedan led Chrysler's September sales. Sales of Dodge Avenger jumped 89 percent from a year earlier. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV also notched a strong month with sales up 19 percent. But the company's best-selling vehicle, the Ram pickup, posted only a 6 percent increase following a strong August.
Ford was hurt by the discontinuation of the Ranger small pickup, which was a big seller last year. It was also weighed by a slowdown in sales of the Fusion sedan as Ford starts shipping a new model to dealerships. Sales of the F-Series large pickup, the country's best-selling vehicle, rose just 1 percent.
At GM, car sales were up 29 percent, led by the Chevy Cruze compact with a 43 percent increase. The Chevrolet Sonic subcompact saw sales rise to five times the number in September of last year.
Uncertainty about the broader economy is keeping sales from rising even faster. Some Americans are holding back on major purchases until they see how the budget battle shakes out in Washington, whether Europe can fix its economy and who wins the U.S. presidential election, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm.
Schuster expects September sales at an annual rate of 14.5 million, perhaps more if automakers finished the month stronger than expected. Bargain interest rates are largely fueling sales, he said.
There are a bunch of new models coming out, especially in the midsize car category, the most popular segment of the U.S. market. Honda's new Accord and a new Ford Fusion are just hitting showrooms, as is a revamped Chevrolet Malibu. The redesigned Nissan Altima is selling well. A new Toyota Camry, the top-selling car in America, has been in showrooms for only a year.
Consumer confidence, one of the biggest factors influencing car-buying, jumped in September to the highest level since February. It was bolstered by a brighter outlook for overall business conditions and hiring.
Associated Press Auto Writer Dee-Ann Durbin contributed to this story.