By Bernie Woodall and Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. auto industry sales in April came in below expectations as Asia's major carmakers' results disappointed, offsetting strong gains for trucks and SUVs made by General Motors (GM.N) and Ford (F.N).
Sales reported on Friday by Japan's Nissan <7201.T>, Toyota <7203.T> and Honda <7267.T>, as well as the combined results for South Korea's Hyundai <005380.KS> and its Kia <000270.KS> affiliate, all missed expectations. Fiat Chrysler (FCHA.MI) (FCAU.N) also disappointed.
Industry sales in April finished at 1,454,951 vehicles, up 4.6 percent according to research firm Autodata. That was below the gain of 6 percent analysts had expected as consumer appetite for trucks and SUVs favored the "Big Three" Detroit automakers.
"When demand for crossovers, SUVs and trucks is strong, the Asian automakers don't do so well," said Jesse Toprak, an independent consultant.
The industry's annual sales rate for the month was 16.50 million vehicles, below the 16.7 million to 16.8 million many analysts had expected.
Nevertheless, industry executives said demand remains strong and the industry was headed toward its best year in almost a decade.
"Consumer and commercial customer demand for pickups and utility vehicles has been building since last fall," said Kurt McNeil, GM's U.S. vice president of sales operations. "The auto industry continues to be on track to have its best sales year since 2006."
U.S. industry sales slipped to 16.5 million vehicles in 2006 from almost 17 million the prior year, and fell as low as 10.4 million in 2009 during the recession, before beginning to climb.
VEHICLE PRICES RISING
Ford officials said average vehicle prices in the industry were up $1,000 from last year to $31,200 per vehicle, and dismissed concerns about longer loan rates, with some now at 84 months.
Ford's U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve said the increase in duration has been driven by buyers with good credit scores stretching to buy more premium vehicles, rather than by consumers with high-risk credit.
The other side of hot truck demand is weaker car sales, which has led to production cuts and layoffs by some automakers. Ford previously said it would lay off 700 people and reduce production at the Michigan plant building the Focus, which saw sales in April fall 5 percent. LaNeve vowed Ford would not create "unnatural demand" for cars through higher incentives.
GM's April sales rose 6 percent to 269,056 vehicles as truck and crossover sales jumped 13 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
Ford's sales increased 5.4 percent to 222,498 vehicles as sales of Ford-brand SUVs jumped 12 percent. Retail sales of the new F-Series pickup truck increased 8 percent, and its average sales prices hit an all-time high of $42,600 per vehicle.
Fiat Chrysler's sales rose 5.8 percent to 189,027 vehicles as Jeep brand sales jumped 20 percent.
Nissan sales increased 5.7 percent to 109,848 vehicles as demand for Nissan crossovers, trucks and SUVs rose 23.7 percent. Toyota was up 1.8 percent, while Honda sales fell by the same amount. Hyundai sales rose 2.9 percent, while Kia's slipped almost 1 percent.
(Autodata corrected the annualized selling rate to 16.5 million from 16.45 million in 5th paragraph)
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, G Crosse)