U.S. auto sales have started 2015 on a stronger note than expected, increasing the industry's chances of cracking 17 million vehicles this year for the first time since 2001.
It's still early in the year, but analysts say there are plenty of positive signs, including record-high lease penetration in early February. Consumer confidence is up, consumer spending is growing at the fastest pace in nine years, and consumer prices fell year-over-year for the first time in five years, leaving more room in families' budgets for a new vehicle.
"There's little risk for 2015 that we won't continue on this track and be at that 17 million unit level," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive. "It's not a stretch target. Everything is aligned pretty well for a strong year."
Despite relentless snow -- 100 inches and counting in Boston -- and subzero temperatures -- the coldest February since 1875 in Detroit -- auto sales haven't suffered like they did during last year's harsh winter. February will mark the industry's 12th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.
Automakers are scheduled to report February sales on Tuesday, March 3. The sales will include transactions through Monday, March 2. Analysts are expecting them to rise between 8 and 9 percent for the month, marking the best February since 2002 and bringing total light-vehicle sales in the past 12 months to 16.8 million units.
That's 1.1 million, or 8 percent, more vehicles than were sold in the 12 months before that.
Hitting 17 million in 2015 would represent growth of 3 percent from 2014 sales of 16.5 million.
As the spring selling season draws near, Marin County Ford in Novato, Calif., anticipates a much larger increase than that. "We've been steadily growing," Sales Manager Athena Williams said. "I have high expectations for the year."
Snow and more snow
Dealers in New England are weary of snowstorms burying their inventory and emptying their showrooms.
Pride Hyundai of Seekonk, just across the Massachusetts line from Providence, R.I., was on pace to finish February with about 75 sales, rather than the 90 or so it would have sold otherwise, General Sales Manager Bill Oldmixon said.
"If we have too much more snow, we'll run out of places to put it," Oldmixon said.
Leasing is helping to push sales higher. J.D. Power said leasing penetration in the first 11 days of February climbed to a record 27 percent of retail sales, spurred by strong residual values.
Sales also are being propelled higher by falling unemployment rates, a healthy stock market and other positive economic indicators. Incentive spending declined 2.9 percent in February from a year ago, TrueCar said.
Hannah Lutz contributed to this report.