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US auto dealers have best December in five years


US consumers, who are more confident than they have been in eight months, were lured to auto showrooms by holiday discounts and may have pushed car sales to the second fastest pace in more than two years.

“From Thanksgiving on, they’ve been very aggressive,” Bob Tasca, whose family owns Ford, Lincoln, Mazda and Volvo dealerships in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, said of auto maker discounts. “We’ve had the best deals of the year.”

Tasca said he expects his best December in five years.

Light-vehicle sales in December, set for release tomorrow, may have run at a 13.4 million seasonally adjusted annual rate, the average estimate of 13 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg, up from the 12.4 million pace a year earlier. While the rate may trail the 13.6 million seasonally adjusted pace in November, typically a slow sales month, the number of units sold increased in December, according to the average of five estimates.

Consumer confidence reached an eight-month high in December, according to the Conference Board, as car makers aired holiday ads and continued promotions begun in late November, which led to the highest seasonally adjusted rate of the year. Campaigns like General Motors Co (GM)’s “Chevy’s Giving More,” featuring Santa Claus as a car salesman, brought consumers into showrooms seeking year-end deals.

Tasca, whose dealerships sell about 400 cars and trucks a month, credits aggressive marketing by Ford Motor Co and others for making December the top month of 2011.

Ford brand sales for the year were above two million for the first time since 2007, the Dearborn, Michigan-based company said last week.

The car makers haven’t put out many new deals since the end of November; they just advertised them heavily,” said Ivan Drury, a senior analyst with, a consumer-research website based in Santa Monica, California. “If you combine consumer optimism with the fact that some people have older cars and need to replace them, sales are going to go up.”

Car makers used the holiday season to discount remaining 2011 models, boosting those incentives by 10 per cent from last month, said Jesse Toprak, vice-president of industry trends for Truecar Inc, another auto website based in Santa Monica.

Some offers, such as reduced leasing payments and low-rate financing, are affordable for car makers benefiting from low borrowing costs, he said in a phone interview.

“The car companies aren’t spending a lot more — they’re just making a lot of noise,” Toprak said. “So it’s a bit of hype along with some legitimate deals out there.”

Discounts abound
Nissan Motor Co’s “Most Wonderful Sale of the Year” campaign offered buyers rebates or no-interest loans. GM, looking to reduce inventory of its full-sized pickups, offered as much as $4,500 on 2011 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. Ford offered zero per cent financing on many of its models.

GM sales may have risen 4.9 per cent, the average of seven analysts’ estimates, while Ford deliveries may have increased 8.5 per cent, the average of seven estimates. Sales by dealers for Chrysler Group LLC, the US auto maker majority-owned by Fiat SpA, may have jumped 35 per cent in December from a year earlier, according to seven estimates.

Sales are also on the rise because Japanese car makers have rebuilt dealer inventories. Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co lost production when a tsunami in March shut many parts factories in Japan, halting assembly lines around the world. With factories back up and running, they have more cars to sell.

Toyota deliveries may decline by 2.6 per cent and Honda sales may fall 8.8 per cent, the averages of four estimates. Through November, they had lost a combined 4 points of US market share.

Inventory back
Rene Isip, who owns a Honda dealership in Katy, Texas, and a Toyota store in Lewisville, Texas, said sales at both outlets have recovered. His Toyota dealership has 24 days supply of vehicles. Isip said that while he prefers to keep 45 days supply, he is glad to at least have every model in stock.

“With inventory up, business is good,” Isip said in a phone interview. “My Toyota sales in the first three weeks of December beat all of November.”

Nissan sales in December may have slipped 2.1 per cent, the average of four estimates. The Yokohama, Japan-based company was less affected by the natural disasters than Toyota and Honda were, and the auto maker’s US share through November rose to 8.2 per cent from 7.8 per cent a year earlier.

Hyundai Motor Co and affiliate Kia Motors Corp may see combined sales rise 33 per cent, the average of three analysts’ estimates. The Seoul-based auto makers boosted their combined US market share through November to nine per cent from 7.8 per cent a year earlier.