Considering all the obstacles carmakers selling in the US faced in February – the stock market hitting a plateau and petrol prices soaring – Tuesday’s sales figures are a cause for celebration, Comerica Bank chief economist David Littman told Dow Jones.

The news agency noted that Autodata Corp. figures show February sales hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.4 million cars and trucks, compared with 15.6 million a year ago.

With upwards of $US190 billion in tax rebates expected to hit consumer’s pockets this spring, Littman reportedly said things will no doubt “go gangbusters.”

“It would be a terrible mistake for the auto makers to in any way cut back on their production schedules,” he told Dow Jones, adding: “That would be one of those mistakes you can’t walk away from.”

Dow Jones said carmakers are hoping better weather will mean better sales in the upcoming months.

But, with industry forecasts estimating sales will hit 17 million vehicles for all of 2004, two consecutive months with adjusted annual sales rates in the low 16 million range could have industry watchers worrying that sales will fall short, the news agency said.

However, the report added, Ford and General Motors on Tuesday assured analysts and the media that they believe sales still will reach the 17 million mark.

Dow Jones said that analysts have worried that bloated inventory levels will force an increase in incentive spending come springtime.

But George Pipas, Ford’s sales analysis manager, told the news agency inventory levels for Ford will increase in March and April and then will begin to trail off as the company prepares to change over its plants for the introduction of the new Ford 500, Mercury Montego, Ford Freestyle and Ford Freestar.

Ford has 905,000 cars and trucks in inventory, up from 888,000 a year ago and 850,000 in January, Dow Jones added, noting that Ford sales were down 2.4% compared with year-ago figures.