(Adds final auto sales figures, paragraphs 2-4)
By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT, Aug 3 (Reuters) - U.S. auto sales were stronger than expected in July and kept the industry on pace for its best performance since the turn of the century as cheaper gasoline and low interest rates drove the shift toward sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.
U.S. auto sales rose 5.3 percent to 1.51 million vehicles, above the 3 percent rise expected by analysts, according to Autodata Corp. The figures translate to an annualized sales rate for July of 17.55 million vehicles and keeps the auto industry on a pace for its best year since 2000.
Sales for the year are knocking on the door of a record 17.35 million vehicles set in 2000. Before Friday, when automakers released July sales results, analysts forecast 2015 sales of 17.1 million vehicles, about the same as 2001 sales.
Ford economist Yong Yang said cheaper fuel prices and low interest rates helped boost sales. The Federal Reserve may raise interest rates in September
High-margin pickup trucks helped sales of the two market leaders, General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co, which each showed gains that were more than double analysts’ estimates.
GM’s pickup truck sales rose 51 percent, steered by the mid-size Colorado, which is sitting on dealer lots only 16 days before selling, the company said.
Ford’s F-Series sales alone topped those of all Ford and Lincoln brand sedans.
The F-Series total of 66,288 was up 5 percent, even as the F-150 is not at full inventory.
Sales rose 0.6 percent for Toyota Motor Corp , third in the U.S. market by sales volume. Top cars Camry, Corolla and Prius, each experienced declines while its Tacoma small pickup truck gained 29 percent.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sales rose 6 percent and Nissan Motor Co Ltd gained 8 percent, also outstripping expectations of analysts.
Honda Motor Co sales rose 7.7 percent on the strength of a 16 percent gain for utility vehicles and minivans.
GM shares edged up 0.7 percent to $31.75. Ford shares rose 1.1 percent to $15.01. FCA’s U.S.-traded shares were up 2.9 percent at $16.26.
Car-buying website TrueCar Inc said a record $47 billion was spent on new-vehicle purchases in July, up 2.l percent from a year earlier.
Ford truck sales rose 5.7 percent, its utility vehicle sales jumped 13.4 percent while sedan sales fell 3.9 percent.
FCA sales were led by a 23 percent increase for Jeep SUVs.
At Nissan, sales of its Rogue small SUV jumped 51 percent. (Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Grant McCool)