* Auto sales rate at 14.94 mln, highest since March 2008
* GM, Ford see soft truck sales; Toyota up 41.5 pct
* Cheap financing, consumer confidence fueling sales
By Deepa Seetharaman and Bernie Woodall
DETROIT, Oct 2 (Reuters) - U.S. auto sales last month posted their best showing in 4-1/2 years, helped by cheap financing, rising consumer confidence and a major rebound by Toyota Motor Corp.
The September sales pace was 14.94 million vehicles as calculated on an annualized basis, exceeding analyst estimates of 14.5 million, according to Autodata Corp. This was the highest rate since March 2008, about four months after the start of the 2007-2009 U.S. recession.
U.S. auto sales last month rose 13 percent to 1,188,865 new vehicles. Analysts, on average, had expected an increase of less than 9 percent.
General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co said rising home prices and a drop in jobless claims encouraged American car shoppers to buy new vehicles.
The wider availability of cheap financing also spurred sales. About one-third of Toyota buyers who financed their purchase last month received a no-interest loan, according to industry research firm Edmunds.com. Toyota’s proportion of no-interest deals was higher than any other automaker.
“The money is so cheap now,” said Jesse Toprak, TrueCar.com analyst. “Higher resale values and cheap money has been enabling automakers to offer some of the most attractive leasing programs we’ve seen in years.”
About 80 percent of new vehicle transactions are financed, said R.L. Polk analyst Tom Libby.
The interest rate on a 48-month new car loan was about 3.19 percent last month, down from 4.39 percent in September 2011, according to Bankrate.com.
That rate was about 7.45 percent in May 2009, during the depths of the downturn that pushed GM and Chrysler Group LLC to file for government-funded bankruptcies three years ago.
During the recent recession, which officially lasted until June 2009, U.S. consumers delayed big-ticket purchases, pushing the average age of vehicles on the road to a record high.
That pent-up demand has fueled auto sales growth this year as cars and trucks on the road push past the point of repair and consumers’ economic prospects improve.
“I think in general with the economy chugging along at about 1.5 percent to 2 percent that we are gradually seeing people come back,” said Ford chief economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick.
GM, the largest U.S. automaker, said sales of its mini, small and compact cars nearly doubled last month. Ford’s small car sales rose about 73 percent, while fuel prices rose.
But both automakers said pickup truck sales in September, when those sales typically strengthen, were softer than in years past. Both GM and Ford said trucks made up about 12 percent of sales last month, down from 13 percent in September 2011.
“There has been a fundamental shift of truck to car that we’ve been seeing for the past few years,” said Chevrolet’s sales chief, Don Johnson, adding that September’s results represented a continuation of that trend.
“Consumers, because of the price of fuel, have definitely shifted over the last couple of years to a stronger mix on the car side,” he said.
Ford shares ended 1.4 percent lower at $9.79 and GM shares gained 2.6 percent to close at $23.68 on Tuesday.
GM sold 210,245 cars and trucks last month, up 1.5 percent from a year earlier. Ford sold 174,976 cars and trucks last month, on par with its results from a year ago.
Chrysler, the U.S. automaker majority-owned by Italy’s Fiat SpA, showed a 12 percent jump in sales to 142,041.
Toyota said vehicle sales rose 41.5 percent to 171,190 last month, while Honda Motor Co sales rose about 31 percent to 117,211.
The outsized gains from Toyota and Honda reflect their recovery from inventory shortages last year after the March 2011 earthquake in Japan.
Volkswagen of America, the U.S. arm of Volkswagen AG , sales rose 34.4 percent.
Nissan Motor Co’s sales fell 1.1 percent to 91,907 vehicles, hurt by higher fuel prices as well as inventory shortages of its Altima midsize sedan, said Al Castignetti, U.S. sales chief for the Nissan brand.