Jeep Wranglers are lined up at the Chrysler Toledo Assembly Complex.
All three major U.S. automakers reported sales gains in December, closing out a strong year that saw sales rise to levels not seen since before the recession.
Chrysler Group LLC sold 152,367 vehicles in December, a 10 percent gain from the year before. General Motors said its sales were up 5 percent in December to 245,733. Ford Motor Co.'s sales rose 2 percent to 214,222. All major automakers are expected to release their December and full-year 2012 U.S. sales results today.
For the year, GM led the way by volume, selling 2.6 million vehicles, up 4 percent from 2011. Ford was second with 2.3 million vehicles, a 5 percent gain. Chrysler posted by far the largest sales gain of the three, growing its volume by 21 percent to 1.7 million vehicles.
Chrysler said the Jeep Wrangler set an annual sales record in 2012, with 141,669 of the Toledo-built vehicles sold. Liberty sales dropped off considerably in December, but the discontinued model still was up 13 percent for the year at 75,483.
Analysts are expecting total U.S. sales to be near 14.5 million units in 2012, making it the third consecutive year of auto sales gains of at least 10 percent and the best performance in five years.
In 2012, American had plenty of incentive to buy new cars and trucks. Unemployment eased. Home sales and prices rose. And the average age of a car topped 11 years in the U.S., a record that spurred people to trade in. Banks made that easier by offering low interest rates and greater access to loans, even for those with lousy credit.
Toyota, which has recovered from an earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crimped its factories two years ago, said sales jumped 27 percent for 2012. Its December sales were up 9 percent. Unlike 2011, the company had plenty of new models stocked in showrooms for most of last year.
Among European carmakers, Volkswagen dominated, with annual sales up a staggering 35 percent.
The Polk auto research firm predicted even stronger U.S. sales for 2013, forecasting 15.3 million as the economy continues to improve. Polk, based in Southfield, Mich., expects 43 new models to be introduced, up 50 percent from last year. New models usually boost sales.