US light vehicle sales are expected to rise for the second straight month from a year ago and maintain April's torrid 17-million-unit annual pace, says WardsAuto.com.

Ward's also forecasts that the market strength will extend into June, with the second quarter's overall 17-million seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) topping the 16.7 million recorded during April-June 2001.

"A rebound in fleet deliveries will drive sales volume in May and June, along with generally good economic news, generous retail incentives and low interest rates," said WardsAuto manager of industry analysis Haig Stoddard.

Underscoring the industry's optimism, May-June vehicle production schedules are strong even though inventory rose 1.6% during April.

WardsAuto forecasts May's SAAR at 17.0 million, down slightly from April's 17.3 million but topping 16.4 million a year ago.

Actual unit volume is pegged at 1.635 million units, 2.2% above same-month 2001 on a daily sales basis. It's the second month this year with a gain on year-ago and April sales were up 2.8%.

Among the high volume car makers, only Ford is expected to have lower sales.

With May's forecast, the year-to-date SAAR becomes 16.8 million, the same as a year ago and slightly higher than the 16.6-million units WardsAuto expects will be sold during calendar 2002 as a whole.