Automakers ended 2013 with a bang, selling about 1.4 million cars in December, according to preliminary estimates, ranking it among the best months in years.
Sales started slow as consumers focused on Christmas shopping but then came roaring back in the last week of the month as people used days off during the holiday period to shop for cars, said Erich Merkle, sales analyst at Ford Motor Co.
Ford reported U.S. December sales of 218,058 vehicles, up about 2 percent. The automaker's sales grew 11 percent for the year.
The automaker had a record sales year for both the Fusion sedan and Escape crossover. December was also strong for trucks. The automaker sold 74,592 of its F-Series pickups last month and 763,402 for the year, making it the top-selling vehicle in America.
But not every automaker posted gains last month.
General Motors Co. said its sales fell 6 percent to 230,157 vehicles compared to the same month a year earlier. But for the year, GM's sales rose more than 7 percent.
Kurt McNeil, vice president, U.S. sales operations, said, "2013 was the year that GM and the auto industry put the last traces of the recession in the rearview mirror."
Toyota Motor Corp.'s U.S.
sales dipped almost 2 percent to 190,843 vehicles, but sales rose more than 7 percent for the year.
Chrysler Group said its sales increased 6 percent to 161,007 vehicles last month and 9 percent for the year.
Nissan said its U.S. sales rose nearly 11 percent to 109,785 vehicles in December and more than 9 percent for the year.
By the time all the automakers report results Friday, new-vehicle sales are expected to have risen almost 3 percent over the same month a year ago, logging an annualized sales pace of about 16 million.
"December sales marks a strong finish to an incredible year of industry growth, which saw sales volume improve by close to 8 percent," said Alec Gutierrez, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "In December, consumers took advantage of low interest rates, enticing lease offers and attractive incentives."
The month culminates a long and steady recovery for the auto industry, which underwent the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler and saw a massive restructuring four years ago. Sales are expected to have reached nearly 16 million in 2013, about a 50 percent gain from the low of 10.4 million sold coming out of the Great Recession in 2009.
"Auto sales were one of the brightest spots on the economic horizon last year," said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust Co. in Chicago.
Still, there are worrying signs that an industry slowdown could be around the corner, said Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley.
"Some key U.S. auto indicators imply we're in late or even extra innings," Jonas said.
It could be harder to get buyers into cars in the coming year. Lending to consumers with subpar credit is already closing in on 16 percent, the peak prior to the recession. Moreover, leasing now is at a record 30 percent of car sales. Incentives and discounts are starting to rise, and automakers are adding production capacity to their factories at a rate that is faster than consumer demand.