Sedans and pickups strong in '13
15.3 million SAAR: 'Great start for the year'
Strong demand for mid-sized cars and pickups, two segments expected to propel the auto industry to a six-year high in 2013, helped U.S. auto sales increase 14 percent in January.
The five largest automakers each posted double-digit gains, and all three Detroit companies gained market share in the same month for the first time since August 2011.
It was the first January in which U.S. auto sales topped 1 million units since 2008. The results fueled optimism about the industry's growth potential this year and largely erased concerns that a decrease in many consumers' take-home pay would make them more skittish about expensive purchases.
"The sales pace we saw in the fourth quarter rolled right into January," Bill Fay, Toyota Division general manager, said on a conference call. "It was a great start for the year."
The industry's seasonally adjusted annualized selling rate declined slightly to 15.3 million from December's 15.4 million. That compares with 14 million a year ago.
If that pace continues, sales for the year would fall in the middle of analysts and automakers' projections, which generally range from 15 million to 15.5 million.
"A difficult recession in the past and slow recovery currently cannot stop the momentum that low interest rates bring to new-car sales," Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, wrote in an e-mail. "Consumers are replacing cars that are old, on average, and this pent-up demand combined with low interest rates and a growing economy for a strong January performance."
At Ken Garff Automotive Group in Salt Lake City, January's new-car sales were tracking 22 percent higher than January 2012, John Garff, CEO of Garff Enterprises, said last week.
"I'm optimistic about what 2013 will bring," said Garff, whose business sells 23 brands. "It's a cautious optimism because there's so many unknowns out there."
Automakers said they were not concerned about last week's Commerce Department report showing that the U.S. economy unexpectedly shrank in the fourth quarter for the first time since the 2009 recession.
Mid-sized sedans, with sales up 19 percent, contributed significantly to January's results and are expected to continue driving growth throughout the year. Sales of two redesigned sedans, the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion, surged. Accord sales rose 75 percent and Fusion sales increased 65 percent. The Toyota Camry posted just a 13 percent gain but still led the segment in unit sales by a considerable margin.
It was the best January for car sales since 2006. But trucks also fared well, particularly full-sized pickups, which rose 25 percent.
Sales of General Motors' outgoing models, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, increased 33 percent. But supply of the trucks, which GM is working to sell down before redesigned versions arrive at dealerships this summer, jumped to 117 days from 80 days a month ago.
Sales rose 22 percent for Ford Motor Co.'s F-series pickup and 14 percent for Chrysler Group's Ram pickup. A resurgence in new-home building and new models, including a redesigned Toyota Tundra being unveiled at this week's Chicago Auto Show, are expected to push pickup sales higher this year.
Trucks helped the Detroit 3 increase its market share to 45.6 percent, from 44.2 percent a year earlier.
Only two Detroit brands declined in January: Jeep, which fell 4 percent because it has discontinued the Liberty SUV, and Lincoln, whose sales were down 18 percent.
Ford officials on Friday said dealers would not have adequate inventories of the redesigned Lincoln MKZ until early April because the vehicles were undergoing intensive quality inspections before being shipped out.
All of the three companies' other brands reported double-digit growth, including increases of 47 percent for Cadillac and 37 percent for Dodge.
"Inventory levels are in great shape, particularly at our import stores," said Mike Shaw, the dealer principal at Mike Shaw Automotive of Denver. "If January is any indication, 2013 will be a fantastic year."
Brianna Valleskey, Mark Rechtin and David Phillips contributed to this report
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