DETROIT – American consumers ignored tax increases and tromped through the winter chill to buy new cars and trucks at an unusually strong pace last month.
“(January) was like a sprinter out of the starting blocks,” said Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation Inc., the country’s largest auto dealership chain.
Analysts said it will likely be the best January in five years once all automakers report. Sales at Toyota rose 27 percent, and they were up 22 percent at Ford. GM and Chrysler each reported 16 percent gains compared with a year earlier.
The figures so far show that the auto industry remains a bright spot in a tepid U.S. economic recovery.
The results left the industry optimistic about the new year. Businesses bought more trucks. Consumers — whose cars have reached a record average of 11.3 years old — are ready to buy, and banks are making it easier with low interest rates and looser credit terms.
The stock market also may have inspired car buyers — the Standard & Poor’s 500 index had its strongest January since 1997. 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.”
Chrysler estimated that total U.S. industry sales hit an annual rate of 15.5 million in January. If that holds for the rest of the year, automakers will sell 1 million more vehicles than in 2012, when sales rose 13 percent.
The strong January numbers came even though higher Social Security taxes cut take-home pay for most Americans.