Car sales could be strongest since 'Clunkers'

@CNNMoney December 1, 2011: 5:36 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- American car buyers were out in force in November, with U.S. automakers leading the way to the best month for auto sales since 2009's "Cash for Clunkers" program.

Industry sales rose 13.9%, according to sales tracker Autodata. That resulted in an annual sales pace of 13.6 million vehicles when making a seasonal adjustment -- the best sales pace since August 2009, the month the government's Clunkers program paid buyers who were trading in older, gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Excluding the Clunkers spike, it was the best month since before the financial market meltdown in September 2008.

Industry experts said buyers appear ready to finally look past the various uncertainties in the general economy and start buying cars once again.

"In the past, consumers were simply waiting and postponing big ticket purchases until the dust settles. Now they are realizing that the dust isn't going to settle any time soon and they have to make the most prudent buying decision," said Jesse Toprak, analyst with TrueCar.

Toprak and other analysts believe the November sales momentum should be able to continue into December and throughout most of 2012. There are numerous forecasts of sales in the 13.5 million rate next year. Even with a good December, this year's sales are likely to be about a million below that target.

Pickup trucks had a particularly good month, with a 21.7% gain for the segment. But buyers didn't totally ignore fuel economy, despite falling gas prices. Small-car sales rose 14.5%, and some fuel economy leaders had particularly strong months.

The electric-powered Chevrolet Volt had its best sales yet despite reports of a safety investigation involving post-crash test fires. Still GM finally admitted Thursday that with total sales of 6,241 so far, the Volt will not reach its first year sales target of 10,000.

November sales gains were led by domestic automakers, which are in position to all gain market share in the same year for the first time in decades.

The big winner this month was Chrysler Group, where sales soared 45%.

"Chrysler is getting back to where they should have been all along," said Todd Lassa, Detroit editor of Motor Trend. "That's a good thing but they really only had one direction to go."

General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) reported sales up 6.9% from a year earlier, while Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500) sales jumped 13.3%.

GM's retail sales to consumers were much stronger than its overall gain, up 15% from a year ago. Fleet sales, which are typically less profitable, fell 14%, driven by a drop twice that large in sales to rental car companies.

Ford said its retail sales jumped 20%, while Chrysler said its retail sales were 51% above a year ago.

Toyota Motor (TM), whose sales have been hurt by supply problems since the earthquake and tsunami in March, posted a 6.7% gain in sales, its best gain since February. To top of page

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