General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. each reported substantial jumps in U.S. sales of cars and light trucks in February, powering the industry to its strongest pace in nearly 18 months.

All three relied heavily on incentives to lure buyers, and GM and Toyota’s gains were magnified because each had unusually weak sales a year ago. Still, auto makers expressed confidence that more consumers are willing to spend on new cars, and lenders are making loans and leases more readily available, even to customers with blemishes on their credit records.

“You’ve got a lot of people who are feeling like they aren’t going to get fired or laid off. You’ve got people who are making big ticket purchases again,” said Al Castignetti, U.S. sales chief for the Nissan brand. “You have a lot of pent-up demand from the last two years.”

GM sold 207,028 vehicles in February, up 46% from a year earlier, while Toyota’s sales climbed 42%, to 141,846 vehicles. Nissan Galpin Motors near Los Angeles had too much inventory on its sprawling lot, said Vice President Beau Boeckmann.

“Now we have the opposite problem,” he said. The Ford dealership last month sold about 500 vehicles, up from 300 a year ago.

“I feel good going into March,” Mr Boeckmann added.

GM’s U.S. sales analyst, Don Johnson, said that rising gasoline prices as a result of the current turmoil in the Middle East could pose a threat to sales in the months ahead.

But he added that GM has seen no evidence yet that higher pump prices are slowing consumer purchases.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, average gas prices in the nation are up 68 cents a gallon from a year ago, to $3.83 as of Feb. 28. That is 19 cents a gallon higher than a week earlier.

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