U.S. light-vehicle sales were stronger than expected for the second straight month in February, providing 2012 with the best 2-month start for any year since 2008.

LV deliveries totaled an estimated 1.146 million in February. The volume equates to a daily selling rate of 45,846 units over the month’s 25 selling days, for an 11.2% gain on year-ago’s 41,245 with 24 selling days.

Estimated year-to-date U.S. LV volumes total 2.07 million units, a 13.8% increase from like-2011’s 1.807 million.

February’s seasonally adjusted annual rate was 15.0 million units, the highest for any month since 15.5 million in February 2008. It also is a considerable hike from January’s 14.1 million and year-ago’s 13.2 million.

U.S. auto makers are cautious about predicting the stronger-than-expected start to 2012 may cause them to raise their initial market outlooks for the year, which range between 13.5 million to 14.0 million units. WardsAuto’s forecast calls for 14.1 million LV sales .

However, there is a sense of optimism that LV deliveries will continue to be better than expected, despite the potential negative impact rising fuel prices could have on total volume.

Sales in the first two months were boosted by increased retail and fleet sales that were pushed into 2012 due to the natural disasters that hit the Asia/Pacific region last year, causing critical inventory shortages of several vehicle lines.

But pent-up demand, better economic news and increased advertising and marketing also appear to have played a role in the positive January-February results.

On a volume basis, LV sales should continue to post solid year-over-year gains for the next several months, even if monthly SAARs weaken from the combined January-February level of 14.5 million units.

Some Japanese auto makers still do not have their inventories up to speed after the fallout from the homeland’s devastating tsunami last March, but expect to see healthy levels by the second quarter.

Additionally, the tsunami impacted U.S. LV sales throughout the late-spring and summer months.  Barring similar catastrophes this year, or a huge upward spike in fuel prices, deliveries during the second and third quarters of 2012 should handily outdo year-ago’s artificially lowered volumes.

The strong year-over-year February sales occurred in spite of market-leader General Motors’ 2.9% decline, compared with year-ago, thanks to the extra selling day in the month because of leap year.

GM’s dip was offset by gains by other volume leaders including Ford (10.0%), Toyota (7.9%), Honda (7.8%), Nissan (10.9%) and a robust 35.1% for Chrysler.

Chrysler’s sales surged 41.9% in the year’s first two months, compared with like-2011.

hstoddard@wardsauto.com