February U.S. light-vehicle sales further confirmed the industry is back to pre-recessionary levels of early 2008, with volume expected to gradually approach the 16 million-plus annual totals averaged during most of the last decade leading to the 2008 downturn.

The sequester leading to automatic spending cuts by the federal government that starts today does not appear to pose a serious threat to the industry, as auto makers say fundamentals supporting sales growth, such as pent-up demand, largely will compensate for any impact on consumers’ psyches caused by Washington’s budgetary inaction.

Also apparent in February results is the lack of interest among buyers in smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, despite the recent run-up in gasoline prices.

February volume totaled 1.2 million units, for a daily sales rate of 49,509 over the month’s 24 days. The DSR was 8.0% above year-ago’s 45,833 over 25 selling days.

The data translates to a 15.3 million seasonally adjusted annual rate, nearly even with the prior month’s 15.2 million but well above year-ago’s 14.4 million. If not for poor weather in the Midwest at month’s end, the SAAR may have reached 15.4 million-15.5 million.

The January-February aggregate SAAR of 15.3 million is the best start for a year since 15.5 million in 2008.

Light-truck penetration of 49.6% in February was significantly higher than year-ago’s 47.6%, and not far below January’s 49.8%. Truck share typically declines from January to February.

Sales of Large Pickups, seen as an indicator of underlying strength in the economy, climbed 22.4% from year-ago. Their share of LV deliveries, at 11.9%, was the highest for the month since 13.0% 2008.

All five competitors in the segment posted gains. General Motors’ stable increased 33.2%, while sales of Ford’s F-Series rose 18.2%. Notably, the Ram pickup, the freshest of the bunch with a ’13-model restyling, saw a gain of only 9.8%, though that is compared against strong year-ago results.

Increased incentive activity and marketing campaigns at GM and Ford likely contributed to their strong pickup volumes.

Adding to the overall truck gain was the cross/utility segment, which saw sales jump 19.0% from year-ago and share rise more than two points to 24.8%.

All six CUV segments recorded double-digit gains, ranging from 12.1% for Middle CUVs, the second-largest segment in the industry, to 149% for small luxury versions. But Small CUVs climbed 34% and large CUVs, riding momentum from the new Nissan Pathfinder – formerly segmented as an SUV – and GM’s revamped Lambda-platform trio, surged 45%.

Despite the increase in fuel prices, sales of all large trucks increased 21.9% over year-ago and 21.2% from the previous month, outrunning the overall January-February LV sales gain of 19.1%.

Sales of cars increased only 4.1% over year-ago, compared to the 12.3% gain for trucks overall.

Small Car deliveries rose just 3.5%, and Middle Cars performed only slightly better, up 4.5%. However, sales in the Upper Middle segment, the largest segment, and where a rash of recently redesigned entries are competing, increased by 17.3%. Share of the Upper Middle segment reached 16.6% vs. like-2012’s 15.3%.

All the major manufacturers recorded gains in February except Nissan, which posted its second straight decline and fourth in the past six months, despite a heavy mix of new products.

Ford led the six majors with a 13.3% sales increase. Its share jumped to 16.1% from 15.7% in January and 15.4% in like-2012. The figure marks its highest market penetration since 16.6% in December 2011.

GM’s sales were up 11.6% and it garnered an 18.9% share, highest since 19.4% in June 2012.

Chrysler posted its 35th straight increase from year-ago with an 8.9% gain, and Toyota’s hike of 8.7% was its 16th consecutive gain but lowest since 7.9% in February 2012.

Honda recorded a tepid 2.1% increase, and its year-to-date results are only 4.4% above like-2012.

Other auto makers posting gains were Porsche (36.0%); Mitsubishi (33.1%); Daimler (27.2%); Jaguar-Land Rover (23.1%); Subaru (15.6%); Volkswagen/Audi (12.8%), Hyundai (6.5%) and BMW (1.9%).

Downturns were recorded by Kia, its third straight, and Suzuki, which has pulled out of the U.S. market.

hstoddard@wardsauto.com