POSTED: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 - 9:00pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 - 9:34am
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Car sales jumped in August as major automakers all reported better-than-expected numbers in what's shaping up to be one of the best months in years.
Sales at General Motors were up 10.1 percent from a year ago, while Ford Motor reported a 12.6 percent rise. Chrysler Group posted a 14.1 percent improvement over a year ago.
Japanese rival Toyota Motor enjoyed a 40 percent jump in sales from year-ago results that were depressed by the earthquake and tsunami earlier in the year that disrupted production and limited supplies of cars to sell.
All four sales figures easily beat forecasts from sales trackers Edmunds and True Car. Those forecasts had put the industry on pace to send the annual rate to between 14.2 million to 14.5 million sales in August.
The better than expected results from the four major automakers means industry-wide sales could top already bullish forecasts. The 14.5 million rate would match the strongest sales pace of the year, reached back in February. It would be a nice rebound from a disappointing July car sales.
Better access to financing and some signs of improvement in the labor market are likely factors in the stronger sales. Pent up demand from weaker July sales could also have contributed to the jump. And the automakers achieved the better sales even while cutting back on incentives used to lure in buyers, according to the experts.
"Clearly the underlying consumer demand is strong," said analyst Jesse Toprak of TrueCar. "This is a combination of factors you want as an automaker: Sales are up, transaction prices were up, incentives are down."
Fuel efficient models were popular with buyers during the month amid rising gas prices.
"The small car performance is what's most impressive about GM's numbers today," said Edmunds' senior analyst Jessica Caldwell. "Cruze, Sonic, and Spark were all unknown nameplates just a few years ago, but now they almost equal the volume of Silverado, the core of Chevys identity."
In addition, the plug-in hybrid Volt posted record sales of 2,831, up more than 800 percent from a year ago and more than 24 percent better than its previous record set in March.
But it wasn't just economy cars that enjoyed improved sales. Large pickups, a key market segment that U.S. automakers dominate, also increased 13.3 percent.
Other automakers such as Honda Motor and Korean automaker Hyundai Motor are due to report results later Tuesday. If they also post better than expected sales, August could be the best sales pace since 2009 during the "Cash-for-Clunkers" program, or since early 2008, before car sales collapsed in the face of record high gas prices and the global economic meltdown.