American consumers ignored tax increases and trudged through winter weather to buy new cars and trucks at an unusually strong pace last month. It was the auto industry's best January since 2008.
"It was like a sprinter out of the starting blocks," said Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation Inc., the country's largest auto dealership chain.
U.S. auto sales rose 14 percent to more than 1 million. Toyota's 27 percent gain was the biggest among the major car companies. Ford's sales jumped 22 percent, while GM and Chrysler each reported 16 percent gains compared with a year earlier.
The results left the industry optimistic about the new year. Businesses bought more trucks. Consumers are ready to buy - their cars have reached a record average of 11.3 years old - and banks are making it easier with low interest rates and looser credit terms.
The stock market may also have inspired car buyers. The Standard & Poor's 500 index had its strongest January since 1997, and new car purchases tend to rise or fall with the market. Also, employers have been hiring at a steady - if not spectacular - pace.
"We're in a fundamentally sound trajectory," said Mustafa Mohatarem, chief economist for GM. He said the recovery from the Great Recession in 2008 is still modest, but "those recoveries tend to be much more sustainable."
Whatever the incentive, people didn't let chilly weather, or the heavier hand of the U.S. Treasury, stop them from car shopping. Sales ran at an annual pace of 15.3 million in January. If that holds for the rest of the year, automakers will sell nearly 1 million more vehicles than in 2012, when sales rose 13 percent.
Analysts predict full-year sales of 15 million to 15.5 million this year. Although still far from the peak of about 17 million in 2005, the industry could sell a whopping 5 million more cars and trucks than it did in 2009, the worst year in three decades.
The strong January numbers came even though higher taxes reduced take-home pay for most Americans.
Taxes rose after a 2-percent reduction in Social Security taxes that was in place for two years expired Jan. 1. Sales might have been even higher without the tax increase, said Jesse Toprak,
vice president of industry analysts at the car pricing site TrueCar.com. He said the increase is costing the average new car buyer - those with a household income between $70,000 and $100,000 per year - around $300 per month.
"That's almost a car payment," he said. Toyota sales jumped on the strength of the Prius hybrid cars and wagon, which rose 36 percent, and the new Avalon sedan, which was up 50 percent. The luxury Lexus brand climbed 32 percent on strong sales of the new ES and GS sedans.
At Ford, January's sales growth was led by the newly redesigned Fusion midsize car, which saw a 65 percent increase. Explorer SUV sales rose 46 percent.
Ford's luxury Lincoln brand fell 18 percent. Lincoln's new MKZ sedan, which is featured in a Super
Bowl ad, is going on sale now, but could be tough for buyers to fi nd. Ford's U.S. sales chief Ken Czubay said the new Lincolns are undergoing extra quality checks that will delay shipments through April.