DETROIT For the second year in a row, ferocious winter weather slowed U.S. vehicle sales in February, causing the major automakers to miss analysts' bullish projections.
Six of the top seven manufacturers on Tuesday reported year-to-year sales increases in February, but all fell short of expectations.
"Mother Nature was just not nice to us," said Fred Diaz, U.S. chief for the Nissan brand. He expects the industry to recoup lost sales as the weather improves.
Total U.S. sales in February rose 5.3 percent to 1,257,619 vehicles, according to research firm Autodata. Analysts surveyed by Reuters had expected an increase of 7.1 percent.
The industry finished with an annualized sales rate in February of 16.23 million vehicles, far below the 16.7 million that economists polled by Thomson Reuters had expected.
Most companies blamed extreme weather conditions in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, and some pointed to a spike in fuel prices toward the end of the month.
"There was definitely a slowdown" in sales after February 20," said Mark LaNeve, Ford Motor Co's (F.N) U.S. sales vice president. LaNeve said Ford's fleet sales fell, while retail sales were flat.
John Krafcik, president of research firm TrueCar, said the extreme weather likely had a greater impact on sales of cars than trucks.
General Motors Co (GM.N) said U.S. February sales climbed 4 percent from a year ago to 231,378 cars and trucks, while Ford's sales dropped 2 percent to 180,383. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU.N) (FCHA.MI) posted an increase of 6 percent to 163,586 vehicles.
Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) said sales were up 13 percent to 180,467 cars and trucks. Nissan Motor Co's (7201.T) sales were up 3 percent to 118,436 vehicles, and Honda Motor Co (7267.T) reported an increase of 5 percent to 105,466.
Tempering analysts' bullish expectations for car sales, U.S. consumer sentiment fell from an 11-year high in February, weighed down by the unusually severe winter, according to a monthly survey released on Friday by the University of Michigan.
Despite the weakening of sentiment, "my clients aren't holding their hand over the panic button," said Mark Wakefield, managing director at AlixPartners.
The average vehicle transaction price in February fell slightly from a month ago to $33,299, according to industry researcher Kelley Blue Book, but the average price is still $1,145 higher than a year ago.
Average per-vehicle incentive spending by carmakers remained steady at $2,623, according to TrueCar.
Domestic luxury brands took a beating in February, with GM's Cadillac down 13 percent and Ford's Lincoln off 7 percent.
Continued low fuel prices dented sales of electrified vehicles, with the Chevrolet Volt hybrid sliding 43 percent, the Ford C-Max hybrid off 26 percent and the Nissan Leaf down 16 percent.
Sales of small cars and family sedans slid last month, while big trucks continued to show strength. GM's full-size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups were up 24 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
The two GM trucks outsold Ford's F-series pickup, which is ramping up to full production and had a modest decline of 1 percent. Chrysler's Ram pickup was up 7 percent.
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Matthew Lewis)