Chrysler and Nissan led the way with double-digit increases, while Toyota reported sales were up 6 percent. Ford and General Motors exceeded analysts' expectations. Ford sales rose 0.4 percent, while GM posted a 1.2 percent decrease. Volkswagen continued to struggle with sales off almost 13 percent from a year ago.
In almost all cases, truck and crossover SUVs led automakers, showing that the pronounced shift away from cars is continuing. Car prices remained flat, while SUV and pickup truck prices were up, according to Ford.
Chrysler, GM and Ford all predicted an annual light-vehicle selling rate for the month of around 17.2 million, the highest number since August of 2006. Sales had been running at just over 16 million for the year. Many companies expect August sales to rise over 1.5 million vehicles, up slightly from a year ago despite one more selling day last year.
"The industry appears to be very strong at this stage of the recovery," said Erich Merkle, Ford's top sales analyst.
Chrysler's sales leaped 20 percent as the Jeep brand led the automaker to its best August in a dozen years. Nissan reported nearly a 12 percent increase.
Chrysler said that Jeep sales were up 49 percent, with the brand in a sweet spot as buyers shift from cars to crossover SUVs. Jeep's hottest-selling vehicle was the new Cherokee midsize SUV with nearly 19,000 sales. Ram pickup sales rose 33 percent. Chrysler's car sales fell 3 percent, but truck sales were up 28 percent.
Nissan said sales rose almost 12 percent including the Infiniti luxury brand. It was the best August ever for the company. The new Rogue small crossover SUV led the way with a 21 percent sales increase to 21,419.
Ford said sales of the Fusion sedan and Escape small SUV both posted record sales for August, but F-Series truck sales fell 4 percent as Ford prepares to launch a new truck later this year.
GM said its truck sales rose 18 percent, with the GMC brand up 10 percent. Sales of the Buick Encore small SUV rose 13 percent.
At Toyota, sales were led by the RAV4 small SUV.
Jeff Schuster, executive vice president of forecasting for LMC, said it appears the Labor Day weekend helped the industry with a strong finish to the month.
The sales so far show that shoppers are going more for trucks, including the crossover SUVs. "The combination of low gas prices, a smorgasbord of product choice and attractive (not overly aggressive) pricing is clearly the nudge buyers need to return to trucks," he said.
Crossover SUVs generally are built on car underpinnings, so they're more efficient and maneuverable than the older truck-based SUVs. Gas mileage has improved to the point where many get over 30 mpg on the highway. Even truck-based SUVs have improved gas mileage.
Ford's Merkle said small crossover sport utilities accounted for 17.3 percent of the market last month, two points higher than a year ago. Small car sales were just under 22 percent of the market last month, compared with just over 22 percent last year. Midsize car market share fell 0.2 percentage points to 16 percent, he said.
The shift, Merkle said, will continue for the foreseeable future, although it may slow next year. For now, the shift is cutting into car prices and helping to raise prices of trucks and SUVs, he said.