Auto sales flattened in December as storm-wary buyers stayed home and others already had bought during the November "black Friday" promotions, but many car companies still mustered 2013 records.
The 21 automakers selling new cars and trucks in the U.S. snagged 15.6 million buyers last year, according to sales tracker Autodata, up 9.2% from 2012 and highest since 2007. That's still short of the 17 million-plus yearly tallies in the pre-recession heyday, but healthy nonetheless.
Among those reporting full-year sales records: Hyundai, Subaru, Nissan, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Land Rover, Porsche.
Kia and Honda had their second-best sales years.
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"Much stronger than we had a right to expect, with unemployment still high, overall economic growth at best moderate and consumer confidence generally down," said Jack Nerad, a top analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
But plenty of old vehicles in America's driveways — average age is 11-plus years — cheap loans and a sense of wealth from the rising stock market "all were all drivers of what turned out to be very robust auto sales," he said.
Incentives were common in December, but not especially generous, averaging $2,676 per vehicle, according to TrueCar.com, price tracker and researcher. That's 4% more than a year ago. TrueCar says the average transaction price in December was $30,786, down only 0.6% from a year ago.
Automakers are forecasting a bit more than 16 million sales this year. "The economy continues to grow," said General Motors chief economist Mustafa Mohatarem. "We're a long ways from meeting all the expected demand."
Sales signatures of 2013:
•Detroit was resurgent. General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler Group, combined, accounted for 45.2% of all new-vehicle sales in 2013, up from 44.5% in 2012.
That's the first time the Detroit 3 boosted their full-year share of the pie in 25 years, except in 2011 when a tsunami wiped out Toyota and Honda production in Japan, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
•Pickups roared. An improving economy put more tradesmen to work and they finally decided to replace their aging trucks, and the trucking gentry bounded back into the market. Pickups priced $40,000 and up were about one-third of pickup sales.
Big-pickup sales of 1.9 million for the year were up 16.8%, Autodata tallies show.
•Leasing — because it promises lower payments — accounted for a record 27.5% of all December sales, according to Edmunds.com senior analyst Jessica Caldwell. In two or three years, as those leases expire, used car buyers could find great bargains, especially on luxury models, which are the most-leased vehicles.
•Small cars were a hard sell. Autodata totals show small cars of all types, combined, fell 8.8% in December and were down 7.8% for all of 2013.
•Small SUVs, on the other hand, were popular. And they didn't have to be new designs to get the spotlight.
Honda 's now-aging CR-V — best-selling SUV of any size or type in the U.S. — hit nearly 304,000 sales in 2013, putting it in the fast company of the high-volume midsize sedans, such as Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima.
Ford's Escape small SUV, which is a new design, notched about 294,000. But General Motors' Chevrolet Equinox is about as hoary as they come in that segment, and it was next at about 238,000.
Toyota RAV4, a new model, rounds out the top-selling SUVs — of any kind, not just smaller SUVs — with 218,000.
Any of those sales numbers is enough to keep a big auto plant running on two shifts, perhaps with some overtime.