DETROIT — Superstorm Sandy gave an extra boost to already strong U.S. auto sales last month, although carmakers warned that uncertainty over the "fiscal cliff" could undo some of those gains.
Most major companies, from Toyota to Chrysler, posted impressive increases from a year earlier. Only General Motors was left struggling to explain its 3 percent sales gain and large inventory of unsold trucks.
Americans already were willing to buy a new car or truck last month because they're more confidence in the economy. Home values are rising, hiring is up and auto financing is readily available. Also, the average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is approaching a record 11 years, so many people are looking to replace older cars.
Sandy just boosted that demand. The storm added 20,000 to 30,000 sales industry wide in November, mostly from people who planned to buy cars during the October storm but had to delay their purchases, Ford estimated. People who need to replace storm-damaged vehicles are expected to drive sales for several more months. GM estimates that 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles eventually will need to be replaced.
November sales, when calculated on an annual basis, likely are to be 15 million or more, the highest rate since March of 2008, according to LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area consulting firm. That's higher than the 14.3 million annual rate so far this year, even though November is normally a lackluster month because of cold weather and holiday anticipation. Both GM and Chrysler predicted November sales would run at an annual rate of 15.3 million.
If sales end up at 15 million for the year, it would be a vast improvement over the 10.4 million during the recession in 2009. Sales still would fall short of the recent peak of around 17 million in 2005.
But the ongoing "fiscal cliff" negotiations between Congress and the White House still could derail the industry's recovery.