DETROIT -- The holiday weekend was good to U.S. automakers, as sales reports indicate the auto industry is on track to beat strong numbers from a year ago.
Chrysler's U.S. sales rose a surprising 16 percent in November, while General Motors posted a 14 percent gain. Toyota sales rose 10 percent, Nissan was up 11 percent and Ford notched a 7 percent increase. Of major automakers, only Volkswagen and Honda reported sales drops. VW was off 16 percent, while Honda sales were down less than 1 percent.
"Industry sales in November picked up after Thanksgiving, contributing to the best sales pace of the year," said Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager.
Kurt McNeil, GM's U.S. sales chief, said November U.S. sales are likely to run at an annual rate higher than 16 million, a strong pace he attributed to better conditions for consumers.
"The economy is creating jobs and household wealth," he said. "Energy costs are dropping and credit is available and affordable. All of this bodes well for future growth."
Small crossover SUVs like the new Jeep Cherokee were once again the stars for the month. The crossovers continued to gobble up market share during November, gaining two full percentage points over a year ago to 15.5 percent of U.S. sales, said Erich Merkle, Ford's top sales analyst.
The gains came at the expense of small and midsize cars. Midsize cars fell one point to 14.5 percent, while small cars dropped a point to around 20 percent, Merkle said. Both Ford and GM said competitors offered big discounts on their small and midsize cars and predicted that trend would continue.
The Cherokee notched the rare achievement of sales of more than 10,000 in its first full month on the market.
"That is a big number," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of auto sales forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm.
Overall, Chrysler sold just over 142,000 vehicles last month for its best November in six years, up from nearly 123,000 a year ago. Sales of Jeeps rose 30 percent, and the brand had its best November ever.
Both GM and Chrysler reported their best November sales since 2007. GM sales rose to 212,060, up from 186,505.
GM was led by larger vehicles, with its top-selling Chevy Silverado pickup posting a 12 percent gain. The GMC Sierra pickup saw sales rise 23 percent. Large SUVs, like the Chevrolet Tahoe, also had big sales, with the Tahoe up 23 percent. Big cars also were up. The Chevy Impala posted a 20 percent gain, while the Cadillac XTS was up 42 percent.
The double-digit pickup gains were repeated at Ford and Chrysler. Sales of Ford's F-Series, the best-selling vehicles in the U.S., rose 16 percent to 65,501. For Chrysler, sales of the Ram pickup increased by 22 percent.
With the success of the Cherokee, Chrysler took advantage of the dramatic shift in the market toward smaller SUVs.
The Cherokee's sculpted look annoyed Jeep purists. But Schuster says the styling may have paid off. "It sends a signal that the Cherokee, which has been polarizing in the industry, may be appealing to consumers more than critics," he said.
Chrysler delayed Cherokee shipments for several months while engineers tinkered with its new nine-speed automatic transmission to make it shift more smoothly. Dealers didn't have a normal inventory until mid-November, the company said.
David Kelleher, owner of a Chrysler dealership in Glen Mills, Pa., outside Philadelphia, said his dealership sold 21 Cherokees last month. That helped the store reach its best November sales since Kelleher bought it eight years ago.
Ahead of the reports, industry analysts estimated that total U.S. sales rose 3.6 percent to 6.3 percent for November. That's slower growth than earlier in the year, mainly because sales in November of 2012 were the best in nearly five years. Superstorm Sandy hit in October last year, delaying some East Coast sales until November.
Dealers said sales started slowly, but they did well after Thanksgiving, boosting their monthly totals over November of last year.
"Black Friday did give us a lift," said Bill Perkins, president of two Chevrolet dealerships in the Detroit suburbs of Taylor and Eastpointe, Mich.
Normally November is a lackluster month for auto sales. But automakers, particularly Ford and General Motors, offered deals this year that brought out buyers, according to the Kelley Blue Book auto website.