Consumers are responding better than expected to a new season of improved cars and trucks as auto sales in September beat just about every prediction.

New car shoppers snapped up the new models at a rate of 14.9 million per year, beating an already-rosy projection of 14.5. million by Wall Street and other prognosticators who survey car dealers throughout the month.

The biggest winners in September were Toyota (up 41.5 percent) and Honda (up 31 percent), which continue to bounce back from depressed sales last year owing to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that disabled some of the companies' factories for months. Hyundai (up 15 percent) and Volkswagen (up 34 percent) continue to post gains from popular new models. General Motors (up 1.5 percent) and Ford (up 2.3 percent) are posting sales gains, but below the industry as a whole. And Chrysler continues to surprise analysts, posting a 12 percent gain from September last year.

Sales were up a frothy 29 percent in September, compared with August.

Why the surge?

There is still a hangover from 2008 and 2009 when industry sales fell to around 10 million. The average age vehicle in the U.S. is above 10 years today because people have put off their new-car purchases the last few years. Banks and finance companies are now offering easier credit than was the case a year ago, as well. Beneath that, economists point to a more confident consumer.

"We hear a lot about unemployment higher than we'd like it to be, but for those with jobs and good credit, it is a great time to buy a new car or truck," says AOL Autos Editor-in-Chief David Kiley.

Some banks and credit unions are offering two-percent financing to people with good credit. That's almost as good as subsidized loans from the automakers' finance companies. "Not only is it cheap, it's relatively available," says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm.

"The money is so cheap now," said Jesse Toprak, TrueCar.com analyst. "Higher resale values and cheap money has been enabling automakers to offer some of the most attractive leasing programs we've seen in years." The interest rate on a 48-month new car loan was about 3.19 percent last month, down from 4.39 percent in September 2011 and 7.45 percent in May 2009, according to Bankrate.com.

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More good news for buyers: Used-car values have remained high due to tight supplies and strong demand, and that means dealers are paying more for trade-ins.

More good news for sellers: September was a strong month without auto companies resorting to jacking up the discounts. The average incentive for the month was $2,468, down almost 7 percent from September of last year, according to the TrueCar.com auto pricing site. Automakers are able to book more profit when they discount less.

What models are hot? GM said sales of its mini, small and compact cars nearly doubled last month. Ford's small car sales-Fiesta, Focus and the new C-Max – rose about 73 percent, while fuel prices rose. But both automakers said pickup truck sales in September, when those sales typically strengthen, were softer than in years past. Both GM and Ford said trucks made up about 12-percent of sales last month, down from 13-percent in September 2011.

"There has been a fundamental shift of truck to car that we've been seeing for the past few years," said Chevrolet's sales chief, Don Johnson, adding that September's results represented a continuation of that trend.

Some luxury brands were strong as well. Audi sales were up 26.5 percent, while Mercedes-Benz sales were up 7.5 percent – a record September for the company in the U.S.

AP and Reuters contributing