DETROIT, Jan 4 (By David Bailey) - U.S. auto sales rose to the highest rate in 16 months in December -- topping industry and Wall Street expectations -- as major automakers forecast the recovery would gather momentum in 2011.
Auto sales results are one of the first snapshots of U.S. consumer demand and stand as the latest in a string of indicators including unexpectedly strong factory orders for November pointing toward growing confidence in the recovery.
U.S. auto sales rose more than 11 percent in 2010, snapping a four-year slide that forced the Detroit automakers into a wrenching restructuring that included government-directed bankruptcies for GM and Chrysler.
In a year-end surge that took the industry by surprise, the annualized sales rate for December jumped back above 13 million vehicles, according to initial data from major automakers.
That sales level was last seen consistently in 2008, before the financial crisis. Major automakers, including Ford and GM, said they expected that sales for 2011 could top the 13 million vehicle mark on a full-year basis.
"We have seen real improvement in actual consumer demand, particularly in the last quarter of 2010," TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak said.
General Motors Co's sales rose 7.5 percent from a year earlier. Ford Motor Co's sales rose 6.7 percent and the carmaker overtook Toyota Motor Corp as No. 2 in the U.S. market.
The gains for the top U.S. automakers underline the stunning turnaround in the fortunes of GM and Ford
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