NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Automakers continued to spin their wheels during September, with sales struggling to match the modest levels posted the month before.
Sales slipped 4% from August, but gained 29% compared to a year earlier. That jump is no surprise: Last September was a terrible month when both dealer inventories and customer demand were severely depressed by the end of the Cash for Clunkers program.
"There's no indication that consumers are opening their wallets," said Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of sales tracker Edmunds.com. "I would see people holding back until cars go on sale again. I think fourth quarter sales are going to be muted at best."
The 4% decline in sales was also not shocking. Sales normally fall during this time because August is when dealers clear out their showrooms to make room for new models.
When taking that seasonal effect into account, the sales rate for September works out to annual sales of 11.8 million vehicles, up from an 11.5 million sales pace in August. That's the best numbers since the spike caused by the Clunkers program in August 2009.
Anwyl said sales in September were helped by the fact that Labor Day came late, meaning that virtually all vehicles sold during Labor Day sales were in the month rather than starting in the final week of August.
But even at 11.8 million vehicles, sales are below the level need to replace broken down cars being taken off the road, a sign of fundamental weakness in demand.
And he said sales to fleet customers, such as rental car companies, were up 80%, while retail sales to consumers improved only 19%. Low gas prices also helped sales, he said.
"With everything set up in the automakers' favor, we would have needed something solidly in the 12 million range to break out of the slump we're in," he said. "But any upside in these sales can be accounted for by the timing of Labor Day and fleet sales."
Auto executives said they were more pleased by results than were the analysts.
Don Johnson, GM's vice president for U.S. sales, said sales ended up pretty much hitting the company's internal targets for the month, and that despite weakness in the middle of the month, sales were strong at the end.
"This recovery has been somewhat uneven," he said. "Overall, [the September sales number] lays the foundation for what we expect will be a stronger industry in the fourth quarter."
George Pipas, director of sales analysis for Ford, also is projecting continued improvement in fourth-quarter sales. He said the sales rate, when adjusted for seasonal factors, has risen every quarter for the last year.
GM, No. 1 automaker in terms of U.S. sales, reported an 11% increase compared to the Clunkers hangover from a year ago. But sales fell about 7% from August. The results were roughly in line with forecasts.
When comparison is limited to the four brands GM still sells -- Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac -- sales rose 22% over last year. GM discontinued or sold its Pontiac, Saturn, Saab and Hummer brands as part of its bankruptcy process, but in September 2009 it was still disposing of inventory from those brands. Sales at those discontinued brands tumbled 99%.
But the discontinued brands had little effect on sales comparisons to August for GM, as the four continuing brands suffered a 6% decline. And GM's sales increase lagged results of rivals Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500), Toyota Motor (TM) and Chrysler Group.
Ford posted some of the stronger sales in the industry, up 41% compared to a year ago. That was better than forecasts by sales trackers Edmunds.com and TrueCar.
But it represented only a 2% increase from the August sales levels. When excluding the Volvo brand from the year-ago sales, Ford's sales increased 46%. Ford has since sold the unit to Chinese automaker Geely.
Ford sales gains were broad based, with most models posting double-digit percentage sales increases. It was strong enough that sales were only 7% below the GM sales volume, the closest Ford has come to leading the U.S. market in recent memory.
Toyota posted a 17% increase in sales compared to a year earlier, but down 1% from August. That was a bit better than Edmunds' forecast but a bit stronger than the estimate from TrueCar.
But it left the automaker mired in third place in terms of U.S. sales, showing that it has yet to fully recover from the recall crisis of earlier this year. Toyota started 2010 a solid No. 2 in U.S. sales, ahead of Ford.
Honda Motor (HMC) sales jumped 26% from a year ago, but fell 10% from August. Rival Japanese automaker Nissan posted a 34% rise from a year ago, but a drop of 3% from August. Sales soared 44% at Korean automaker Hyundai Motor, which includes both the Hyundai and Kia brands, but fell 11% from August levels.
Chrysler Group, which includes the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands, reported a 61% spike in sales compared to the prior year, but an increase of less than 1% from its August sales. September 2009 was one of the worst months in a terrible sales year for Chrysler. Forecasters from sales trackers Edmunds.com and TrueCar had both projected about a 50% jump in sales for the automaker.
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