Most automakers posted higher U.S. sales last month, a sign that Americans are still willing to buy big-ticket items even though concerns linger about the economy and hiring.
After a sluggish June, sales rose slightly at Detroit automakers General Motors Co. and Chrysler. Foreign-based companies like Kia and Subaru posted bigger gains. Ford, meanwhile, had flat sales.
Sales were boosted by easier credit and new versions of cars and trucks ranging from Jeeps to large family wagons. Summer promotions also helped.
"Consumers have been conditioned to think that the summer is a great time to pick up a deal on a new car," Edmunds.com senior analyst Jessica Caldwell said.
Credit is thawing, with auto loan approvals up for buyers in every tier. GM announced last month that it would buy AmeriCredit Corp. in an effort to expand loans to customers with poor credit and offer more leases.
But the market is still vulnerable. Auto sales have been recovering from a 30-year low in 2009, but the pace has been fitful, with month-to-month sales falling as often as they rose in the first six months of this year.
Most automakers saw sales fall from May to June as shoppers avoided showrooms due to economic worries.
But when final sales figures are tallied late Tuesday, July could be one of the strongest sales months this year, and better than last July, when the government's Cash for Clunkers rebate program only helped a few days of sales.
Sales at General Motors Co. rose 2.6 percent over June, helped by promotions to make room for 2011 models. Newly launched models such as the Chevrolet Camaro muscle car, Chevrolet Equinox crossover, Buick LaCrosse sedan and Cadillac SRX crossover showed strong increases. Crossover vehicles are roomy inside like a truck, but are usually built on a more nimble car platforms.
Ford Motor Co., which has enjoyed a strong 2010 so far, said its sales were flat from June. They rose 3 percent compared with July last year, lifted by stronger sales of its Ford-brand cars and trucks.
Ford's overall sales were weighed down by a drop in Mercury sales. Production of that brand stops at the end of this year. Sales at the Lincoln luxury brand slid 16 percent, largely because of falling demand for the Town Car sedan, which ends production next year.
Japan's Honda Motor Co. said sales rose 5 percent from June, but fell slightly from a year ago amid weaker demand for small cars that benefited from last year's Cash for Clunkers program.
Any second-half recovery in auto sales depends on consumer spending now that government stimulus and businesses inventory building have run their course, said Ted Chu, GM's chief economist. As long as employment continues to slowly improve and gas prices stay below $3 per gallon, sales should rise gradually.
"I think pent-up demand is going to continue to be the driver," he said.
Automakers are continuing to limit deals, which have hurt profits in the past. TrueCar.com estimated that incentive spending, at an average of $2,831 per vehicle, was down 1 percent industrywide from June.
Jeff Schuster, director of global forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates, said the sales pace dropped off in the last half of July, likely because of the lack of big incentives.
Other automakers are reporting sales throughout the day:
-- Hyundai sales rose 6 percent from June. Sales climbed 19 percent from July 2009, lifted by brisk sales of midsize and smaller sedans such as the Sonata and Elantra. .
-- Kia sales rose 11 percent from June. Sales jumped 21 percent from July 2009, helped by new automobiles such as the Sorento crossover and the Soul hatchback.
-- Subaru sales rose 11 percent compared with June. Sales rose 10 percent from July 2009, with the Outback crossover leading the pack.
-- Daimler AG sales slipped 5 percent from June. Compared with July 2009, sales rose 7 percent, as strong sales of its Mercedes-Benz luxury cars offset plunging interest in its smart brand.