Ford focusAuto sales are up, and that's good news for economy watchers. Sales of cars and light trucks (SUVs and pickups) in the U.S. were up 15.7% in February from a year ago -- the highest rate of auto sales seen since February 2008.

Falling unemployment, lenders more willing to cooperate, increasing consumer confidence, and even the unseasonably warm winter in some parts of the country have all contributed to the car boom.

Remarkably, rising gas prices haven't hurt sales, though they've affected the kinds of cars that consumers are seeking:
  • Ford (F) saw very strong sales of its acclaimed Focus compact for the second month in a row.
  • Sales of the small Chevy Cruze and Sonic helped boost General Motors' (GM) otherwise lackluster results.
  • Toyota (TM) saw a surge in sales of its popular Prius hybrid and strong results for its new Camry introduced late last year.
  • And Honda's (HMC) Civic, always a steady seller when gas prices are rising, turned in a strong month despite fierce competition.
So what does all this mean for those looking to buy a car?

Road Conditions for Car Shoppers

If you're looking to buy a new car or truck in the near future, this boom in sales is both good and bad news. On the one hand, there are some advantages to shopping now:
  • You may have more financing options, as the improving economy has made lenders more willing to play.
  • There are lots of good, fuel-efficient choices, as the automakers' efforts to "green up" their model lines and improve quality have resulted in some great cars and trucks.
  • Trade-in values are still strong, as good used cars continue to be in high demand.
On the other hand, some things will make it a little more challenging for shoppers:
  • Great deals may be harder to come by. Automakers have been under pressure to reduce incentives, those "cash back" or cheap financing offers you hear about in TV ads. And busy dealers may be less willing to cut prices now than they would have been when times were tougher. That could add up to a higher bottom-line price.
  • Hot models are harder to find. Because sales of popular cars like the Toyota Prius and Ford Focus have been so strong, the choices available on your local dealer's lot may be limited. You may have to drive farther, or search longer, for the right car in the right color.
Don't let those challenges slow you down if you're really ready to buy. There are still plenty of good offers out there, especially on the slower-selling models that might have been the flavors of the month sometime last year.

And while the dealer might not be willing to budge on that last few hundred dollars, you -- or the dealer -- might be able to make up the difference with an attractive financing offer. Considering that the best new cars are better than ever, that might be all you need to bring a great new vehicle home.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors, as well as creating a synthetic long position in Ford.



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