As the bleakest year in memory winds down, various green shoots, as economists say, signal a turnaround.
1. Ford, GM ratchet up production
Ford and General Motors plan to boost production in the first quarter of 2010 to more normal levels. For instance, GM plans to produce 650,000 vehicles in the first quarter vs. 371,000 in the first quarter of 2009. "The industry appears to have stabilized," said George Pipas, Ford's chief sales analyst.
2. Toyota plants run overtime
In early December, Toyota was running overtime at all its North American plants to keep up with demand and replenish low supplies of vehicles. On Dec. 10, Toyota said it immediately would begin hiring a second shift of 800 workers for the Woodstock, Ontario, plant, which assembles the RAV4 crossover.
3. Ford posts profits
In the third quarter, Ford reported its first pretax operating profit -- $1.1 billion -- since the first quarter of 2008. The results prompted CEO Alan Mulally to declare victory: "Ford is making tremendous progress despite the prolonged slump in the global economy."
4. Public retailers eye acquisitions
In the third quarter, the six largest retail groups in the United States posted profits higher than in the third quarter of 2008. This will help thaw the nearly frozen market for buying and selling dealerships. Said AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson: "There's a backlog of sellers that are waiting, but we think there needs to be more movement on price before we're ready."
5. U.S. sales show a pulse
In October and November, sales were flat from the same months of 2008. Ordinarily, that would be disappointing. But in 2009, that was good news. Except for August, which was driven by the U.S. government's cash-for-clunkers rebates, monthly sales were dismal. September sales plunged 23 percent, for instance.