By Bernie Woodall and Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT (Reuters) - The three big U.S. automakers posted better-than-expected April sales as consumers snapped up pickup trucks and compact sport-utility vehicles, pushing the industry toward a sixth consecutive month of strong results.
General Motors Co , Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group LLC reported higher sales of lucrative models like their pickup trucks, boosted by better housing values and lower gasoline prices.
The U.S. auto industry's annualized selling rate for April is expected to be 15.25 million light vehicles - cars and most pickup trunks - according to analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. That would be the sixth consecutive month of a selling rate above 15 million.
Such a rise would indicate a continuation of the moderate recovery for the industry since its plunge in 2009 to the lowest sales since World War Two, adjusted for population.
Monthly auto sales are an early sign of consumer spending.
Japan's Toyota Motor Corp , the third-largest automaker in the U.S. market, showed a drop of 1.1 percent in April sales, missing analysts' expectations that ranged from unchanged to up 8 percent.
Ford's April sales rose 18 percent, while GM and Chrysler posted gains of 11 percent.
Volkswagen reported a sales decline of 10 percent. Nissan Motor Co's April sales rose 23 percent but slightly missed analysts' expectations.
Pickup trucks and SUVs are traditionally the strongest aspects of the domestic automaker lineups, even as all three have diversified to include more smaller cars since record-high gasoline prices in 2008 and the industry downturn in 2009.
"The full-size pickup truck segment continues to show signs of strength, supported by replacement demand and the recovery in housing," said Erich Merkle, Ford U.S. sales analyst.
Merkle said that so far this year, pickup truck sales are "growing at a rate almost three times higher than the overall industry."
First-quarter U.S. housing starts rose 36 percent, said Jenny Lin, Ford economist. Pickup truck sales are strongest when the construction industry is on the rise.
GM's primary pickup truck, the Silverado, had an April sales rise of 28 percent. Chrysler's Ram pickups rose 49 percent.
Ford's F-Series pickup trucks, the best-selling models in the U.S. market for 36 years, showed a 24 percent increase.
Earlier this week, Chrysler reported first-quarter earnings down 65 percent from a year earlier, in part because of production delays for the Jeep Grand Cherokee prior to April. Grand Cherokee sales were up 27 percent last month.
Jonathan Browning, president and chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America, said industrywide sales of midsize sedans rose only 2.7 percent in the first quarter. Ford said industrywide sales of full-size pickup trucks were up 20 percent.
Volkswagen offers no pickup trucks.
Nissan announced it is cutting prices on seven models that represent 65 percent of its U.S. offerings.
Consumer confidence in the United States rebounded in April, bettering analysts' expectations, industry group The Conference Board said on Tuesday.
For all of 2012, U.S. auto sales rose 13 percent to 14.5 million light vehicles.
Other major automakers in the U.S. market, including Japan's Honda Motor Co and South Korea's corporate sisters Hyundai Motor Co and Kia Motors , were due to report April sales later Wednesday.
(Editing by John Wallace)