DETROIT -- Strong U.S. sales in December capped a remarkable year for the auto industry -- especially Japanese brands.
Sales of new cars and trucks are expected to total 14.5 million. That is 13 per cent better than 2011 and the best performance in five years.
In 2012, Americans had plenty of incentive to buy new cars and trucks. Unemployment eased. Home sales and prices rose. And the average age of a car topped 11 years in the U.S., a record that spurred people to trade in.
Banks made that easier by offering low interest rates and greater access to loans.
"The U.S. light-vehicle sales market continues to be a bright spot in the tremulous global environment," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice-president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit industry forecasting firm.
Year-end deals on pickup trucks and the usual holiday ads helped December sales jump 10 per cent to more than 1.3 million, auto pricing site TrueCar.com predicted. That would translate to an annual rate of more than 15.6 million, making December the strongest month of 2012.
Toyota, which has recovered from an earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crimped its factories two years ago, said sales jumped 27 per cent for 2012. December sales were up nine per cent. Unlike 2011, the company had plenty of new cars on dealer lots for most of last year.
Honda sales rose 24 per cent for the year. Nissan and Infiniti sales were up nearly 10 per cent as the Nissan brand topped one million in annual sales for the first time. Volkswagen led all automakers with sales up a staggering 35 per cent.
Chrysler, the smallest of the Detroit carmakers, had the best year among U.S. companies. Its sales jumped 21 per cent for the year and 10 per cent in December. Demand was led by the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Ram pickup and Chrysler 300 luxury car.
But full-year sales at Ford and General Motors lagged. GM's rose only 3.7 per cent for the year, while Ford edged up five per cent. For December, GM sales rose five per cent, while Ford was up two per cent.
GM said it has the oldest model lineup in the industry, yet it still posted a sales increase and commanded high prices for its cars and trucks. GM plans to refurbish 70 per cent of its North American models in the next 18 months.
The year's sales of 14.5 million were far better than the bleak days three years ago when they fell to 10.4 million, a 30-year low.
-- The Associated Press