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By Nelson Ireson

With the fear of automatic federal spending cuts looming over much of the nation (despite their relatively tiny impact on the overall federal budget), the end of the payroll tax holiday, and the still-recovering feel of the economy for most consumers, it would be easy to expect car sales to have taken a dip in February. That didn't happen.

With an estimated overall seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of about 15.2 million units, according to J.D. Power and Associates, February was marginally weaker than January 2013, but total sales were 7% stronger than in February 2012. The retail sales SAAR of 12.1 million units is down from January's 13.1 million as well, but still ahead of February 2012 figures.

The impact of the Great Recession is still being felt in the auto industry, but the idea of recovery is now a "when," not an "if" -- and when appears to be coming soon, with J.D. Power and Associates Senior VP of Global Automotive Operations John Humphrey in January predicting a return to "pre-recession levels within the next few years," adding for February's sales that "we're increasingly confident that the fundamentals are in place to continue to support an upbeat sector outlook for the coming year."

February's sales weren't just more numerous than last year; they were more valuable as well. "Demand is increasing, but the automakers deserve credit for doing a much better job of keeping alignment of production and demand." said Humphrey. "This has led to new-vehicle transaction prices that are averaging nearly $1,000 more in February than the same period in 2012, while incentives have remained relatively flat year over year."

America's biggest car brands mostly saw improvement in February. General Motors rose 7% year on year; Ford (NYSE:F) was up 9%; Toyota (NYSE:TM) gained 8.7%; and Chrysler saw a 4% rise. Nissan/Infiniti (OTCPK:NSANY) saw a 6.6% decline, and Honda/Acura (NYSE:HMC) fell 2.0% against last year. February's sales figures have caused LMC Automotive to revise its forecast for total 2013 light vehicle sales in the U.S. from 15.1 million to 15.3 million units, with the retail sales forecast rising from 12.4 to 12.5 million units.

"The current fundamentals that are driving strong vehicle sales -- pent-up vehicle demand and a stable, recovering economy -- are expected to get a boost by additional positive factors this year. An expected recovery in the housing market, and 50% more new-model launches combined with an increase in lease maturities should keep light-vehicle sales climbing throughout the year," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive.

Here are the detailed sales figures, as reported by the automakers:

General Motors (NYSE:GM): GM sold 224,314 cars and trucks in February, a 7.2% increase over February 2012. Retail sales accounted for 74.8% of total sales, with fleet sales holding steady against a year ago. Each brand under the GM umbrella saw gains in February: Chevrolet sold 158,541 vehicles to rise 4.9%; GMC was up 9.8% on 35.778 vehicles sold; Buick sold 16,150 vehicles and gained 15.2%; and Cadillac was up 20.3% with 13,845 vehicles sold. GM notes crossover sales increased 17% and truck sales grew 14%, but car sales were down 4%.

Ford: Ford moved 195,822 vehicles in February, a rise of 9%. The Ford brand accounted for 190,939 sales and a 10.9% increase against last year. The Lincoln brand sold just 4,883 cars for the month, a decrease of 29.4% compared to February 2012. The Car Connection's 2013 Best Car To Buy, the 2013 Ford Fusion, gained 28% for a total of 27,875 units sold. The iconic Mustang dropped 18.1% to 6,024 units, while the F-Series pickups rose 15.3% to 54,489 units.

Toyota/Lexus/Scion: Toyota's overall sales of 166,377 mark an 8.7% rise. Within that total, Lexus sales of 17,339 vehicles scored an 8.3% increase. The Toyota brand's best-seller in February was the Corolla at 24,999 units, a 17.6 increase over a year ago. The hot new Scion FR-S sold 1,369 units. On the Lexus side, the ES is the big seller, with a 67.4% increase to 4,817 units. The discontinued Lexus HS hybrid sold just a single unit in February -- half the number of LFA supercars sold.

Chrysler: Chrysler marked its 35th consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains in February, with a total of 139,015 vehicles sold, a 4% increase over a year ago. Dodge brand vehicle sales rose 30% for the month for a total of 55,639 units, leading Chrysler's marques. The Ram Truck brand saw gains of just 3% with 23,827 sales, and Fiat rose 2% on 3,302 units. The Chrysler brand was up 21% against January 2013, but down 7% against February 2012 at 25,083 vehicles sold, and the Jeep brand fell 16% from a year ago to 31,164 units.

Honda/Acura: Moving 107,987 vehicles in February, Honda fell 2.0% in total volume compared to last year, but gains 2.1% based on the Daily Selling Rate (DSR). The Honda brand saw a 1.8% rise based on the DSR, but 2.3% overall decline. Acura increased 0.9% overall and 5.1% based on the DSR for total sales of 11,364 vehicles. The top-selling vehicle for Honda was the Accord, up 35.2% to 27,999, while Acura's best was the MDX at 2,575 units.

Nissan/Infiniti: One of the few overall decreases in February, Nissan's sales fell 6.6% overall against record sales in February 2012. Total vehicles sold tallied 99,636, of which the Nissan brand accounted for 90,489, and Infiniti 9,147. Highlights amidst the decline include the Pathfinder, rising 145.6% to 7,014 units; the Versa, up 28.6% to 13,100 units; and the all-electric LEAF, up 36.6% to 653 units as it switches from Japanese-built 2012 to Tennesee-built 2013 model-year production. Infiniti-brand sales were led by the JX crossover (2,300 units) and QX SUV (1,059 units).

Volkswagen (OTCPK:VLKAF): VW's February sales of 31,456 mark a 2.9% increase over a year ago, and the company's best February result since 1973. The Jetta sedan continues to be VW's volume leader at 10,398 units despite an 11.1% decrease year-on-year. Popularity of the Jetta Sportwagen as increased 37.2%, however, to 1,570 units. The Passat was VW's second-best seller at 7,532, though it also saw a year-on-year decline of 8%. The recently redesigned Beetle scored 3,696 total sales, 705 of which were convertibles.

Hyundai (OTC:HYMLY): Hyundai posts its best February ever, selling 52,311 vehicles for a 2% increase over last February's record. The brand's top seller is the Elantra, at 16,219 vehicles, followed closely by the Sonata at 16,007. From there it's a long step back to the Accent at 4,750. The funky and fun Veloster sold 1,905 units in February.

Kia (OTC:KIMTF): Kia saw 41,505 sales in February, a decrease of 8.5% compared to February 2012. Despite the overall downturn, the Optima managed to improve by 14.1% to 13,195 units, leading sales for Kia.

Porsche (OTCPK:POAHF): Porsche's volumes are small, but the gains are big: a 31% increase to 2,805 vehicles sold in February. Cayenne sales grew 73% over last year, accounting for 1,173 units. Boxster sales grew 391 units. The iconic 911 moved 855 units, while the Panamera sold 385 examples. Just a single Cayman was sold in February.

Audi (OTCPK:AUDVF): Audi continues its 26-month consecutive sales increase run with 17.2% more cars sold last month than a year ago for a total of 20,993 vehicles. The Q7 rose 146.6% in February, moving 920 units, while the volume leader, the Q5, gained 57%. The A4 range (which includes the A4 sedan, Avant, S4, and Audi all-road models) sold 2,635 units, a 3.1% decrease from February 2012. Audi is now 17% up year-to-date in 2013.

Subaru: Subaru continues a strong 2013 with its best February in company history, selling 55,286 total vehicles, a 16% year-on-year increase. The Outback led the way at 9,016 units, followed by the Forester (5,529), Impreza (4,515), Legacy (3,745), and XV Crosstrek (3,258). The Impreza WRX's sales led the percentage gains by model, at 61.2% rise over February 2012 for a total of 1,486 units. Legacy, Outback, and Tribeca models all saw gains as well, while Forester and Impreza (non-WRX) saw numbers fall 0.7% and 28.7%, respectively. The all-new and much-awarded Subaru BRZ sports coupe sold 420 units in February.

Mazda (MZDAY.OPK): Mazda fell 2.8% against last February to 24,936 vehicles sold last month. Year-to-date, Mazda is down 6.8%. Leading sales for Mazda is the Mazda3, accounting for 10,554 units, a 6.4% drop from last year. The all-new 2014 Mazda6 notched 1,300 sales, though availability continues to trail demand as Mazda ramps up production.

Jaguar/Land Rover: Jaguar and Land Rover sales for the U.S. are up 18% to 3,905 units. Land Rover brand saw 20% gains, while the Jaguar division rose 12%. The top seller for either brand was the Range Rover Sport at 1,261 units and a 16% increase. On the Jaguar side, the XF led sales with 588 units and a 22% increase, thanks in part to the recent addition of all-wheel drive models to the XF range.

BMW/MINI: BMW, coming off record sales in 2012, sees a group decrease of 2.2% for total sales of 25,613. The BMW brand rose 0.5% over a year ago, moving 21,311 vehicles. The MINI brand struggled, falling 13.6% to 4,302 units.

Mercedes-Benz: Mercedes-Benz sold 24,051 vehicles in February, a 22.2% rise over last year. Year-to-date, the brand is up 16.2% over 2012. Top sellers for the Mercedes-Benz brand were the C, E, and GL Class lines, with the C Class leading volume at 7,302 cars sold, an increase of 39.4%. Also included in total Mercedes-Benz figures were 1,228 Sprinter vans and 783 Smart-brand cars.

Mitsubishi: Mitsubishi turned in one of the biggest percentage gains of the month at 27.8% over last year, for a total of 6,051 vehicles sold. Leading the rise was the Lancer, up 89% for a total of 2,126 units. The all-electric i-MiEV sold 337 units, a 666% increase.

Volvo (OTCPK:VOLVY): Volvo sold 4,867 cars in February, a 7.5% decrease from last year. Year-to-date, sales are still up 0.2%. The S60 sedan led sales for the brand at 2,036 units, followed by the XC60 at 1,496 units.

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Source: February 2013 Car Sales: Strong Despite Sequester, Payroll Tax