From 'oh, no' to 'go-go'

February could be the breakthrough month the U.S. auto industry has been banking on.

For the first time since tumbling into the ditch four years ago, the industry wasn't an overburdened giant trying to climb out of the mud and regain some dignity.

This time, the industry straightened its shoulders, walked up to February and kicked the door in.

A 15.1 million SAAR. That's the best seasonally adjusted annual selling rate since February 2008, back before "uh-oh" turned into "oh no."

As a number on the sales charts we all obsess over, 15.1 sticks out. It pops. It's downright spiky. In the black pit of a 10.4-million unit 2009, seven months had SAARs that started with a "9." In 2010, nine months were 10s or 11s. Even 2011 struggled to revive a faded spring bloom, finally straining to finish at 13.6.

January's 14.2 million SAAR was the best since the cash-for-clunkers frenzy and even a week ago, hardly anybody expected to match it.

February didn't match 14.2. It blew by it.

And without gimmicks. Retail sales led the way. Fleet wasn't a factor. Incentives didn't carry the day -- factories dialed back more than $100 a car last month by's reckoning.

It's time to reassess the year ahead. We've gotten used to a steady drone of bad news.

But 2012 isn't bad at all. New-vehicle inventories are healthy, economic fundamentals are still low but rising, the bulk of the new models coming this year haven't hit yet, pent-up demand is huge, credit availability is expanding, financing rates are at record lows.

And U.S. consumers are, well, less spooked. More confident, and perhaps more important, showing signs that they won't run and hide under the bed at the first hint of trouble.

Hey, for once, the U.S. industry even caught a break: the mild winter. The weather was most nice in February. Few people got snowed in, not even much salt on the roads in most places, so they could go shopping. Maybe we'll lose a few would-have-been March sales this month, maybe it's not much of a factor.

Yes, this is assuming that European debt woes don't blow up global markets. That rising fuel prices don't explode into an energy shock. That Congressional deadlock doesn't nail us again.

February was a surprise bounce. We'll still bounce around this year, with some months less rosy than others.

But the road ahead is looking better.

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