March 1, 2018 / 3:46 PM / a year ago

Automakers post lower U.S. February auto sales as market cools

DETROIT, March 1 (Reuters) - Major automakers posted lower U.S. new vehicle sales for February on Thursday as consumer demand continued to cool following a lengthy boom, despite strong crossovers and SUV sales, sending carmaker shares down.

No. 1 U.S. automaker General Motors Co posted a 6.9 percent decline in sales versus the same month in 2017. The automaker said sales to consumers were down 10 percent "compared to an exceptionally strong February 2017."

Lower-margin fleet sales were up 7 percent, driven by a 15 percent rise in commercial vehicles. Crossovers and SUVs fared well in GM's sales, but its Silverado and Sierra pickup truck models were down significantly versus the same month a year earlier.

U.S. auto industry sales fell 2 percent last year to 17.23 million vehicles after hitting a record high in 2016.

New vehicle sales are expected to drop further in 2018 despite a solid economy.

Interest rates are rising and around 4 million late-model used cars will return to dealer lots this year to compete with more expensive new ones.

No. 2 U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co said its sales were also down 6.9 percent, with an 8.5 percent drop for retail sales.

The main bright spot for Ford was a 1.2 percent increase in pickup truck sales, as its best-selling F-Series models posted their 10th consecutive months of sales gains.

But Ford's passenger car sales were down 12 percent. American consumers have been steadily abandoning passenger cars in favor of larger and more comfortable SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) reported a 1 percent decline in February sales, driven by a 3 percent decline in fleet sales.

FCA has pursued a strategy of cutting lower-margin fleet sales to rental car companies, government agencies and others in favor of higher-margin sales to consumers.

The automaker said its popular Jeep brand's total sales were up 12 percent, while its Ram pickup trucks were down as a 44 percent decrease in fleet sales more than offset an 8 percent increase in retail sales.

In morning trading, GM shares were down 1.6 percent at $38.73, Ford shares were down 0.8 percent at $10.52 and FCA was down 1.7 percent at $20.82. (Reporting By Nick Carey Editing by Susan Thomas)

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