By TOM KRISHER
DETROIT (AP) â¿¿ The recovery in U.S. auto sales from the Great Recession really got rolling at the end of last year, and it looks like the momentum continued in January.
Industry analysts and the CEO of the nation's largest dealership chain say sales last month were far better than the first month of 2012 as drivers kept replacing aging cars and trucks that they held onto during the recession.
Automakers release January sales figures on Friday, and by all accounts, sales will continue to be a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster U.S. economic recovery.
"(January) was like a sprinter out of the starting blocks," said Mike Jackson, CEO of the AutoNation dealership chain.
Sales of new cars and trucks should run at an annual rate of 15 million to 15.4 million in January, much stronger than last year's annual sales of 14.5 million, according to analysts. Sales for the month should exceed 1 million vehicles and should be 8 percent to 15 percent higher than a year earlier.
Not bad for a month where people usually hunker down and avoid going out in winter weather in much of the country.
Jackson, whose chain reported record fourth-quarter earnings per share on Thursday, said he thought there might be a hangover in January from the strong finish to last year. But he said people who focused on paying down debt the past few years are now making big-ticket purchases at a robust pace. Consumers are saying: "I'm moving ahead with my life. I'm getting a new vehicle," Jackson said.
If January's estimated pace holds for the rest of the year, new car and truck sales will match analysts' expectations for the year of 15 million to 15.5 million. That's a million more than last year. Although still far from the recent peak of about 17 million in 2005, the industry could sell a whopping 5 million more cars and trucks than it did in 2009, the worst year in at least three decades.