DETROIT Auto sales rose in the United States last year for the first time since the recession. Theyre still far from what they were just a few years ago but thats just fine with the downsized auto industry, which can post profits even if they sell millions fewer cars and trucks.
For the year, car and truck sales came in at 11.6 million, up 11 percent from last year, automakers reported Tuesday. For December alone, sales were 1.14 million, also up 11 percent from a year earlier.
While the figures have some in the industry talking about a return to the glory days, its a fragile idea. Rising gas prices or more economic trouble could still shake the confidence of American car-buyers.
But for now, executives are optimistic about this year. General Motors, Ford and Toyota all predict sale will come in at 12.5 million to 13 million for 2011. It will take years, analysts expect, to get back to the peak sales of the middle of last decade more like 17 million.
The economic downturn has lasted quite a while, says Jessica Caldwell, director of pricing and analysis for consumer website Edmunds.com. Its going to be slow and gradual rather than a fast bounceback.
Toyota was the only company that sold fewer cars and trucks than in 2009. The company was stung by sudden-acceleration recalls in early 2010 and never fully recovered despite luring buyers with generous incentives. Production problems at its San Antonio plant cut its supply of Tundra and Tacoma pickup trucks, and troubles importing the Prius hybrid also hurt sales.
Were coming off what was arguably the most challenging time in our 53-year history, says Don Esmond, senior vice president of Toyotas U.S. operations.