September 4, 2018 / 1:36 PM / 2 months ago

UPDATE 3-U.S. SUV sales jump again in August

(Adds analyst comment, Honda and Nissan sales, Ford SUV pricing)

By Rachit Vats and Ankit Ajmera

Sept 4 (Reuters) - Top automakers pointed to a small increase in U.S. auto sales in August including another sharp rise in SUV sales, as low unemployment and strong consumer confidence helped mitigate the impact of rising interest rates and fuel prices.

The reports from Ford Motor Co and other top carmakers follow a rise in consumer confidence to a near 18-year high which allayed fears about the impact of President Trump's protectionist trade policy on sentiment.

Analysts said the results were roughly on track to meet Reuters-compiled consensus forecasts for the annualized pace of U.S. car and light truck sales of 16.8 million units for the month, compared to 16.6 million a year ago.

Ford, the No.2 U.S. automaker, sold 218,504 vehicles in August, compared with 209,897 a year ago, when Labor Day sales efforts were marred by the arrival of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The rise included a 20.1 percent surge in sales of sport utility vehicles while pickup truck sales rose 5.7 percent.

Ford's head of US Marketing, Mark LaNeve, said annualized seasonally adjusted U.S. car and light truck sales (SAAR) were between 17.0 million and 17.4 million in August, including medium and heavy trucks which typically make up around 300,000 units.

"The overall health of the consumer is very strong right now, which provides a solid base for our industry," LaNeve said.

"On an absolute basis, we estimate overall industry sales to be flat, but it could make it up as high as being up 1 percent while we're still pulling in some of the numbers."

U.S. auto sales dropped 2 percent last year from a record 17.55 million in 2016 as consumers shifted away from traditional passenger cars towards larger, more comfortable SUVs and pickup trucks, which are also more profitable for automakers.

Ford said earlier this year it would gradually cease production of most passenger cars in the United States. Its new Navigator SUV had an average transaction price of $84,000, up $30,000 a year ago when the previous design was being sold. The company sold 1,522 of the large SUVs last month, up from 755 in the same period last year.

Rival Toyota Motor Corp, which has a larger share of cheaper passenger vehicles, said its U.S. sales had fallen 2 percent to 223,055 vehicles in August. Its SUV sales rose 8.9 percent.

General Motors, the No. 1 U.S. automaker, no longer reports monthly sales. Industry analysts last week estimated GM sales fell about 8.5 percent in August.

Fiat Chrysler said U.S. sales were up 10 percent to 193,718 vehicles in August, led by Jeep and Ram.

The U.S. jobs market is viewed as being near or at full employment, helping to support consumer spending and boost the overall economy.

Yet many analysts are forecasting weaker auto sales for the second half of 2018 and further declines in U.S. vehicle demand next year.

Ford's Senior Americas Economist Bryan Bezold said that US industry sales could go higher but were more likely to plateau where they are now.

"Overall, the data suggests continued economic growth in the second half, albeit with the signs of increasing price pressures," he said.

"Economic conditions remain broadly supportive of vehicle sales around the recent run rate as we head into traditionally strong retail SAAR month later in the year."

Honda Motor Co Ltd's U.S. sales rose 1.3 percent in August to 147,903 units, lead by a roughly 19 percent increase in sales of SUVs including CR-V and Odyssey minivans.

Nissan Group's August sales rose about 4 percent to 112,376 vehicles, helped by higher sales of crossovers such as Murano and Rogue. (Reporting by Rachit Vats and Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Patrick Graham)

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