DETROIT – New models and Labor Day promotions didn’t do much to fire up appetites for new cars in September.

Sales at Chrysler and Ford rose slightly from August. They fell at General Motors and Honda and were flat at Toyota. Car companies say a recovery is still happening, but it’s not as strong as they had hoped following a terrible 2009.

Expressed as an annual rate, September sales came in at a 11.76 million pace. That’s up from a 11.47 million rate in August, but far below 2007’s pre-recession total of 16 million. “We’re not going to bust loose as you sometimes see after a downturn, but we’ll see steady growth,” said Don Johnson, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales.

There were a few winners. Redesigned crossovers, which are SUVs on car frames, saw big jumps across the industry. Sales of the 2011 Ford Edge, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota’s RAV4 doubled, while General Motors’ GMC Terrain surged more than 200 percent. With gas prices relatively low and credit loosening, buyers have been gravitating toward bigger vehicles.

Some new small cars also saw strong sales, including Ford’s Fiesta subcompact, which gets up to 40 miles per gallon. Automakers may have to rely even more heavily on more fuel-efficient cars in the future. The Obama administration proposed Friday to raise the fuel economy average to 62 miles per gallon by 2025.

Sales dropped 4 percent from August to 958,966 cars and light trucks, according to AutoData Corp. While it’s typical for sales to decline after Labor Day, this August was one of the weakest on record.

Industry sales rose 29 percent from last September, but that was deceptive. The government’s Cash for Clunkers rebate program, which ran in July and August of 2009, drew buyers who otherwise would have waited until later in the year.

September had the uneven sales that have plagued the industry all year. The month started strong thanks to Labor Day promotions, but sales tapered off until the final weekend, when new models and clearance sales on older ones piqued buyers’ interest.

Buyers remain cautious, responding to promotions and economic news, which means sales come in spurts.

So far, automakers have refused to pump up sales by offering big incentives, which was the usual tactic earlier this decade. Because car makers are now leaner and producing fewer vehicles, they aren’t forced to use big discounts to move cars off lots.