Major automakers including General Motors Co
GM, Ford Motor Co
JP Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel said the sales rate was on track for 14.5 million vehicles in February, marking the best month for the industry in nearly four years.
The strong showing came even as gasoline prices shot up last month, prompting American consumers to seek out smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Sales of Ford's Focus small car more than doubled last month.
A few years ago, higher fuel prices were a major threat to our total vehicle sales whereas today, those higher prices have become far less of an issue, Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales for Chrysler, said in a statement.
U.S. auto sales have benefited in recent months from consumers' need to replace aging vehicles, which many delayed during the depths of the economic downturn. Higher consumer confidence and the greater availability of credit have also helped sales.
GM sales rose 1.1 percent to 209,306 vehicles last month. Analysts had predicted a decline in GM sales as the No. 1 U.S. automaker offered fewer incentives compared with a year earlier.
Ford sold 179,119 cars and trucks in February, up 14 percent from last year's levels. Chrysler, the U.S. automaker majority-owned by Fiat SpA
GM predicted the annual sales pace in February would be between 14.5 million and 14.9 million vehicles.
Chrysler projected 14.9 million units, while Ford said it would be as high as 15 million units. Both Chrysler and Ford include medium and heavy trucks in their forecasts, which add up to 300,000 vehicles to the total.
On average, 38 analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected
February sales to hit an annualized pace of 14 million vehicles. That would be up from 13.3 million a year earlier.
At the high end of expectations - at 14.4 million - February could represent the biggest total since April 2008, before the financial crisis that sent Detroit into a tailspin.
In February, average U.S. gasoline prices rose 30 cents per gallon to $3.73 for regular grade, which is extremely high for a winter month, according to the AAA motor club.
GM shares were up 2 percent at $26.54 on Thursday morning, while Ford shares rose 2.3 percent to $12.67. That compared with a 0.4 percent rise in the broad S&P 500 Index <.SPX>.
(Reporting By Deepa Seetharaman and Ben Klayman; Editing by Maureen Bavdek, Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis)