UPDATE 2-U.S. auto sales rise as confidence gains

Thu Dec 1, 2011 12:33pm EST

* GM just short of expectations with 7 pct sales gain

* Nissan sales up 19 pct, VW up 41 pct, Chrysler up 45 pct

* Analysts expect overall sales to be highest since 2009

By Bernie Woodall and Deepa Seetharaman

Dec 1 (Reuters) - U.S. auto sales rose sharply in November as more confident American consumers spent more on the average showroom purchase, extending a recovery trend for the industry to a sixth month.

Chrysler Group LLC, Nissan and Volkswagen AG reported double-digit percentage gains sales, putting the industry total on track for its highest level in more than two years.

General Motors Co posted a sales gain of 7 percent in November, boosted by sales of profitable pickup trucks, vans and SUVs, although its overall tally fell short of some analyst forecasts.

The four automakers were the first to report monthly U.S. sales results, one of the earliest snapshots of consumer demand.

The industrywide sales rise came despite lower spending on discounts by the automakers from year-earlier levels. The average vehicle price rose 4 percent to top $30,000, according to industry-tracking firm TrueCar.com.

Chrysler sales rose 45 percent, the biggest gain this year for the company, which is majority owned by Fiat SpA . Sales for Volkswagen AG, the No. 9 automaker in the U.S. market, were up almost 41 percent. Nissan, No. 6 in the market, posted a 19 percent increase.

Analysts have forecast industry sales of 13.4 million vehicles for November. That would mark the highest annualized rate since August 2009, when the U.S. government launched its "cash for clunkers" rebate program.

If projections hold, November would also be the third straight month that annualized vehicle sales have topped the 13 million mark. U.S. auto sales have been trending higher since June, despite the weak employment and housing markets.

Auto executives and analysts said the continued gains in auto sales appeared to be tracking improved consumer confidence. Consumer sentiment rebounded in November from a 2 1/2-year low in October.

Jonathan Browning, the head of VW in the United States, said low interest rates and higher trade-in values for used cars were also lifting auto sales.

"We do see some positive movements in overall consumer confidence," Browning said.

A rise in pickup truck sales in November also points to a modest return in demand from business owners in farming and construction, GM executives said.

"Small business owners need to replace their fleets, and some of these vehicles are near the end of their useful lives," said Alan Batey, head of GM's Chevy brand.

GM's sales chief Don Johnson declined to give a forecast for 2012 U.S. sales, but said the automaker expected the positive trend to continue.

"We see continued recovery in the economy," Johnson said, "and we're hopeful that's going to support auto sales."

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