DETROIT – Americans want new cars and trucks, and they’re not letting higher gas prices or political dysfunction stand in their way.
New car and truck sales were up 4 percent in February as rising home construction and cheap financing kept the U.S. auto recovery on track. While the pace of growth is slowing, industry analysts expect more gains in the coming months, saying there’s little that could derail demand for new cars.
Car buyers have already shrugged off higher Social Security taxes, which cut their take-home pay starting in January. Gas prices – which rose 36 cents to $3.78 per gallon in February – didn’t change their habits, either. And they ignored the debate over automatic spending cuts that were due to take effect Friday.
“Quite frankly, we think most of America is getting a little tired of hearing about some of the dysfunction,” said Kurt McNeil, General Motors Co.’s U.S. sales chief. “We think the fundamentals are strong and that’s what’s important, and that’s what’s driving the economy.”
February sales hit an annualized rate of 15.4 million cars and trucks. That’s still short of the recent peak of close to 17 million in 2005, but it’s quite healthy compared with the anemic 10.4 million recorded during the recession in 2009.
The industry isn’t likely to see the double-digit monthly gains it saw last year, when Japanese automakers came roaring back after the 2011 earthquake in Japan. Instead, auto companies are settling in for a period of slower but sustained growth.
Automakers spent less on discounts and deals, which cut into their profits and brand image. Discounts in February averaged $2,392 per vehicle, down almost 4 percent from a year ago, TrueCar said.
But low interest rates offset that. The average four-year auto loan has a 2.5 percent interest rate, according to Bankrate.com. That’s about half of what it was five or six years ago. On a $20,000 loan, that means a monthly payment of $438, down $23 from a 5 percent loan.