By TOM KRISHER and DEE-ANN DURBINDETROIT (AP) â¿¿ Strong U.S. sales in December capped a remarkable year for the auto industry â¿¿ especially Japanese brands â¿¿ and 2013 should be even better. Sales of new cars and trucks are expected to total 14.5 million after all carmakers announce figures on Thursday. That is 13 percent 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, even for those with lousy credit. "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-area industry forecasting firm. Year-end deals on pickup trucks and the usual round of sparkling holiday ads helped December sales jump 10 percent 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 Thursday that sales jumped 27 percent for 2012. December sales were up 9 percent. Unlike 2011, the company had plenty of new cars on dealer lots for most of last year. Honda sales rose 24 percent for the year. Nissan and Infiniti sales were up nearly 10 percent as the Nissan brand topped 1 million in annual sales for the first time. Volkswagen led all major automakers with sales up a staggering 35 percent.