Auto Industry Has Best U.S. Sales Year Since 2007

DETROIT (Reuters) -

U.S. auto sales rose 9 percent in December, led by foreign manufacturers, capping off the best year for the industry since before the recession.

The year’s sales were driven by a slowly recovering economy, more available credit and the need for consumers and businesses to replace aging cars and trucks.

General Motors Co. posted December U.S. sales growth of 5 percent compared with the year-earlier month, Ford Motor Co. increased sales 2 percent, and Chrysler Group LLC’s sales rose 10 percent.

Wall Street cheered the results, sending GM and Ford stock to their highest levels since July 2011. GM shares ended 2.4 percent higher at $29.82, and Ford shares were up 2 percent to end at $13.46 on Thursday.

Research and consulting firm Polk said it expects U.S. auto sales to hit 15.3 million vehicles in 2013. GM and Ford both predicted industry sales of more than 15 million vehicles, but Toyota Motor Corp. offered a more modest forecast of 14.7 million vehicles.

For the year just ended, U.S. auto sales rose 13.5 percent to nearly 14.5 million new vehicles, the best performance since 2007, according to Reuters calculations.

In the decade prior to 2008, when the recession slowed the industry, U.S. auto sales averaged nearly 17 million vehicles a year.

While last month’s auto sales showed little impact of jitters caused by the so-called fiscal cliff, which was largely averted, automakers expressed worry over the fog of uncertainty still emanating from Washington.

The impact of the payroll tax increase that took effect at the start of the year and the congressional debate over raising the U.S. debt ceiling may keep some consumers out of the market in 2013, several automakers said.

Detroit’s automakers showed December U.S. sales gains of 5 percent, slightly better than analysts’ expectations but not enough to stave off market-share gains by Toyota and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.