Ford Motor Co. cites increased buyer awareness and pent-up demand as key reasons why the auto maker leapfrogged General Motors Co. for the U.S. sales lead in February.

Ford recorded 142,285 total deliveries, compared with GM’s 141,951, according to Ward’s data. February marked the first time Ford topped GM in total sales since August 1998, a feat it accomplished just three times since 1980.

Ford’s 140,319 light-vehicle deliveries fell some 1,200 short of GM’s February tally, but the blue oval company can console itself with a 43.5% gain over like-2009.

“More and more customers are putting Ford on their shopping list,” says Ken Czubay, vice president-U.S. marketing and sales.

Conquest rates for the Ford Fusion midsize car lineup, “poster child” of the auto maker’s product strategy, Czubay adds, are steadily climbing. The Fusion Hybrid hit 82% last month, a new high, while the gasoline-powered Fusion enjoyed a 60% conquest rate, up from year-ago’s 48%.

Sales of Ford’s flagship F-Series pickups rose 39.8% compared with February 2009, a trend chief U.S. sales analyst Geroge Pipas links to “replacement demand.” Notably, the retail/fleet mix for the F-Series was about 50:50, Czubay adds.

Ford’s total fleet sales soared 74% last month, compared with year-ago. But retail deliveries also rose, by 28%.

Fleet sales accounted for 40% of Ford’s mix, slightly above the historic average for this time year, which Pipas estimates at 30%-35%.

Ford expects fleet sales will account for about 30% of its deliveries this year.

Meanwhile, the auto maker reports vehicles are selling with richer content. The Fusion, F-150 pickup and Ford Taurus sedan are the primary beneficiaries, Pipas says, adding technology features are “hot buttons.”

Buyers also have shown willingness to spring for higher trim levels.

“Many boomers who’ve been driving larger vehicles are trading down,” Pipas says. “(But) they’re not leaving behind that nice trim level.”

Almost any way the data is sliced, Ford enjoyed sales increases in February. Car and light-truck sales jumped 52.2% and 38.3%, respectively, according to Ward’s data.

Each of its brands recorded gains with Volvo notching its ninth consecutive month of year-over-year improvement. The Sweden-based brand, which Ford is selling, saw a sales hike of 30.2% compared with February 2009.

Just nine of the nameplates on Ford’s balance sheet suffered sales declines. Among them were the hybrid versions of the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner cross/utility vehicles.

Sales of the platform-mates totaled 1,235 and 80, respectively, for shortfalls of 40.1% and 34.4%. But Pipas says inventory is not an issue.

“We have sufficient inventory of hybrids in this selling environment,” he says. “It’s not all that tight.”

Ford’s total inventory was about 416,000 vehicles as of Feb. 28, up from 405,000 in like-2009.

The auto maker also adjusts upward its second-quarter North American production schedule. Ford plans to build 595,000 vehicles, up 32% from year-ago.

Boding well for Ford’s future are the 8,000 reservations for the Ford Fiesta B-car, which does not go on sale until later this year, Czubay says.

And there are no conclusive indications Ford benefited from Toyota’s quality woes. “Our study showed that many of the Toyota buyers were still undecided as to what they were going to do,” Czubay says.

emayne@wardsauto.com