* Annual auto sales pace in Feb hit 15.38 mln -Autodata
* Angst over possible US budget cuts kept mostly in check
* GM's February U.S. sales beat estimates; Ford lags
* Chrysler US Feb sales up 4 pct, Toyota up 4.3 pct
By Deepa Seetharaman and Ben Klayman
DETROIT, March 1 U.S. auto sales rose nearly 4
percent in February, delivering a better-than-expected
performance as strength in the U.S. housing market tempered
worries over the wave of U.S. federal spending cuts due to begin
The annual U.S. auto sales pace for February was 15.38
million vehicles, according to Autodata, better than the 15.1
million rate expected by economists polled by Thomson Reuters.
This marked the fourth month in a row that the sales pace
held above the 15 million-vehicle mark, a sign that rising home
values are helping American consumers feel more confident about
buying a new vehicle.
"The escalator is heading up and not down," said Kurt
McNeil, head of U.S. sales operations for General Motors Co
, which posted a better-than-expected sales gain.
This boost in housing comes at a time when the average
vehicle on the road is at an all-time high of more than 11 years
old and pushing past the point of repair.
Increased housing construction helped boost sales of pickup
trucks during the month. GM's truck sales to small business
owners were up 40 percent, giving a "strong vote of confidence
in the underlying economy," McNeil said.
GM, the largest U.S. automaker, posted a nearly 30 percent
jump in sales of its Chevrolet Silverado trucks, while Ford
Motor Co's F-Series gained 15.3 percent.
Improvements in the housing market and pent-up demand for
new vehicles offset the risks posed to the broader economy by
the across-the-board "sequestration" U.S. budget cuts, Ford and
GM executives said during conference calls on Friday.
U.S. consumers are showing "nerves of steel" in the face of
the budget cuts, Ford Chief Economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick
said, adding that the cuts would lop off about a half a
percentage point from GDP growth if fully realized.
HONDA, NISSAN FALL
Auto sales each month are an early indicator of economic
health. The auto industry is in the midst of its fourth year of
recovery from an economic downturn that pushed GM and its
smaller U.S. rival, Chrysler Group LLC, into bankruptcy in 2009.
GM's U.S. sales rose 7 percent in February to 224,314 cars
and trucks, while Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, saw sales rise
9 percent to a weaker-than-expected 195,822 vehicles.
U.S. auto sales in 2012 rose more than 13 percent to 14.5
million cars and trucks. Sales rose 14 percent in January to an
annual sales rate of 15.3 million.
Like January, February is typically a slow sales month for
the industry, so a small change in sales can have a large impact
on the annual rate for the month.
Sales at Chrysler, majority-owned by Italy's Fiat SpA
, rose 4 percent to 139,015 vehicles, slightly less than
some analysts expected.
Japanese automakers Toyota Motor Corp, Honda Motor
Co Ltd and Nissan Motor Co Ltd each posted
weaker-than-expected sales last month. Toyota's sales rose 4.3
percent, while Honda fell 2 percent and Nissan dropped 6.6
GM shares closed 6 cents higher at $27.21 and Ford shares
were unchanged at $12.61 on Friday.