SAAR to rise to 15.9 million in January, analysts predict

LMC predicts month's retail sales will be highest since 2004

Most analysts expect 2014 to be the first year since 2007 that U.S. light-vehicle sales surpass 16 million units. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

DETROIT -- U.S. auto sales are projected to rise slightly this month, and one forecaster says retail deliveries will reach the highest January level in a decade.

LMC Automotive today estimated sales would be up 1 percent from January 2013, while Kelley Blue Book predicted a 2 percent gain. Both said they expect the industry's seasonally adjusted annualized selling rate to be 15.9 million, up from 15.4 million in December and 15.2 million a year ago.

LMC projected retail sales would increase 3 percent to 847,400 units, the highest for any January since 2004. J.D. Power and Associates, which provides the registration data used in LMC's forecasts, is predicting retail transaction prices will set a January record of more than $29,500, up nearly $300 year-over-year.

"All systems are a go for a strong and stable U.S. auto market in 2014, with risk of not achieving modest growth diminished," Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC, said in a statement. "We look for economic growth, a robust level of lease maturities, 70 percent more new model launches and an increase in consumers' willingness to spend to be the major drivers of growth in 2014."

U.S. auto sales for January are scheduled to be released by automakers on Monday Feb. 3.

KBB said it expects Nissan North America to post an 8 percent year-over-year sales gain, the most among major automakers. It forecast increases of 6 percent for Chrysler Group, 4 percent for Hyundai-Kia Automotive and 0.2 percent for General Motors. Sales are projected to decrease 4 percent for Ford Motor Co. and 2 percent for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., KBB said.

"January is typically the weakest sales month of the year as many consumers take advantage of holiday deals in December," Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for KBB, said in a statement. "However, winter storms also could impact new-vehicle sales this month, as much of the country deals with historically cold weather and snowstorms. Early estimates indicate fleet sales will be down as well."

Full-sized pickups, a segment that grew rapidly in 2013 as more businesses replaced aging trucks in their fleets, likely will be down 3 percent in January, according to the KBB forecast. Gutierrez said that's because GM is trying to reduce incentives on the recently redesigned Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, while Ford prepares to introduce the next generation of its F-150 later this year. Ford showed off the F-150, which has an aluminum body to make it lighter and more fuel efficient, at the Detroit auto show last week.

Meanwhile, KBB expects small crossovers to stay hot, predicting a 10 percent increase that would be the 15th consecutive double-digit gain for that segment.

"The growth of the CUV segment reflects the confluence of several factors, but most notably the availability of recently redesigned products that offer new technology and improved fuel economy," said John Humphrey, senior vice president of the global automotive practice at J.D. Power. "However, gains in the compact CUV are coming at the expense of the mid-sized sedan segment, which has lost some momentum as products redesigned several years ago lose ground to newer CUV models."

Most analysts expect 2014 to be the first year since 2007 that U.S. light-vehicle sales surpass 16 million units. In 2013 automakers sold 15.6 million units, an 8 percent increase, and LMC said they produced 16.1 million vehicles in North America, a 5 percent gain.

LMC's production forecast of 16.6 million units this year, a 4 percent increase, includes 4.2 million units this quarter, which would be the highest first-quarter output since 2000.

Inventories fell significantly in December, from a 77-day supply at the start of the month to a healthier 63-day supply as of Jan. 1, LMC said.

"While inventory will need to be closely watched and managed, the concerns over excess inventory were likely overblown, and it is not expected to be a problem in 2014," Schuster said.

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