Dave Almond had had enough of his 12-year-old Honda Acura with its squeaks and broken knobs.

After years of waiting, the Harbor City man decided it was finally time for a new car. And so on Saturday, he visited dealers along Pacific Coast Highway in Torrance to find the good deal he knew he could secure.

"The economy seems to be looking up," he said. "People aren't as nervous anymore about taking on a little more debt. At least I'm not."

Consumers throughout the region and across the nation drove up last month's car sales, so much so that some industry observers predict pre-recession sales levels.

Although car companies won't officially release their November sales numbers until Monday, J.D. Power and Associates, which recently published its monthly sales forecast, predicts November could yield the highest retail selling rate since January 2008.

That was the year when the financial crisis led to a steep drop in car sales and nearly plunged the nation's auto industry into bankruptcy. Car sales in 2008 were so bad that foreign auto manufacturers were being forced to store a backlog of several thousand unsold cars and trucks on Port of Long Beach property.

When that space ran out, cars had to be stored in an abandoned military airfield in southern Orange County.

November's sales numbers, however, are expected to tell a more optimistic story.


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The month's new vehicle retail sales are projected to come in at 931,900 units, 14 percent higher than 818,609 units the same time a year ago, according to J.D. Power and Associates' Power Information Network and LMC Automotive, which based November's figures on the first 15 selling days of the month.

According to LMC Automotive, the 2012 forecast is 14.4 million units for total light-vehicle sales in the U.S. and 11.7 million units for retail sales.

A spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. in Torrance said the company is expected to report better numbers than last year.

In Los Angeles County, more than 310,000 cars were sold from January to October, a jump from the 250,000 cars sold around the same time last year, said Todd Leutheuser, executive director of the Cerritos-based Southland Motor Car Dealers Association, which represents the majority of new car and truck dealerships in Southern Los Angeles County.

"Sales have been through the roof throughout the Southland," said Leutheuser, who last year had predicted that national sales would reach 14 million this year.

Several factors such as pent-up demand, low interest rates and a thin used vehicle market are pushing sales upward, he said.

From left, Rich Patrei talks with Chris Smith who is in the market for a new car at the BMW dealership in Signal Hill.
From left, Rich Patrei talks with Chris Smith who is in the market for a new car at the BMW dealership in Signal Hill. (Brittany Murray/Staff Photographer)

New technological features such as hands-free calling and navigation systems also may be a factor, he said.

"You'll have these creature comforts that are commonplace now that were very unique seven years ago," Leutheuser said.

For Los Angeles resident Dana Withers, spending the day looking for a new car at the many dealerships scattered across the South Bay was a welcome change of pace.

"I've been employed, unemployed and underemployed, said the 42-year-old Withers, who finally found a decent job in the publishing industry and was ready to take the plunge.

"I'm looking to get a good deal on a used car," he said. "Or as they call them, `reconditioned.' I still want to be smart about how I spend my money. I'm looking to buy something reasonable.

Last month's strong sales are significant considering November isn't considered a big month for dealerships - until recently, Leutheuser said.

Galpin Ford in North Hills, the largest Ford dealership in the world, had its best single day sales ever last year on Black Friday when 140 vehicles were driven off the lot, said General Manager Terry Miller.

This year, while sales on Black Friday weren't as impressive - just more than 70 vehicles sold - the week was still a success, he said. A total of 175 vehicles were sold over four days when the dealership launched its Black Friday deals, Miller said.

Miller expects a 25 percent increase in sales at Galpin Ford over last year by the end of 2012.

Car companies release their November sales numbers on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012. Experts predict last month could produce the highest retail selling pace since
Car companies release their November sales numbers on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012. Experts predict last month could produce the highest retail selling pace since before the economic downturn in January 2008, boosted in part by Black Friday deals. Sales in 2008 were so bad that foreign automakers were forced to store a backlog of thousands of unsold cars and trucks. (John McCoy/Staff Photographer)
 

"Sales have strengthened each week in November, which bodes well for a strong finish to the month and the year," John Humphrey, senior vice president of global automotive operations at J.D. Power and Associates, said in a written statement.

The U.S. sales forecast for 2013 remains stable at 15 million units for total light-vehicles and 12.2 million for retail sales, but represents a slower growth rate of 4 percent from 2012.

LMC senior vice president Jeff Schuster said uncertainty is expected to dip in the first half of the year.

"The irrepressible need and willingness of consumers to replace aging vehicles is stronger than the effects of natural disasters and fiscal turmoil both here and abroad," Schuster said.

"A sustained recovery pace in auto sales is expected over the next six months, barring any fiscal cliff hangover, but the medium-term forecast is still dependent on more pronounced economic activity and growth."

Consumer confidence is up nationally, with the Conference Board's consumer confidence index rising in November to its highest level in nearly five years from 73.1 in October to 73.7 in November.

Although the index is still below the level of 90 that is consistent with a healthy economy, October and November's numbers are the best readings since February 2008.

With consumer spending driving nearly 70 percent of economic activity, higher consumer confidence could mean a busier holiday shopping season and stronger economic growth.

Galpin's Miller believes part of the increase in auto sales is attributed to car companies producing more innovative vehicles that have virtually everything voice activated while being more fuel efficient.

"I've been here 25 years and the showroom looks much different than it did back then," Miller said, overlooking the showcase of compact and hybrid vehicles at the dealership.

The other factor, Miller said, is that the deals have been ramped up over the last few years to encourage consumers to continue purchasing despite the tremulous economy.

Ford, for example, has year-end deals offering a $1,000 rebate or $1,000 Mastercard gift card. In some cases, customers can see $6,500 rebates, Miller said.

Incentives like those, often offered during holiday weekends, are exactly what attracted customers like Peter and Leticia Sandoval of Claremont.

While waiting to get their 2012 Ford Flex serviced, Peter Sandoval explained that their decision to invest in a new car was because "in the back of our minds, we thought we better get it while we can."

"We felt we had more of an advantage to work with pricing because of the uncertain economy," Leticia Sandoval said.

"With the way the economy has looked and the fiscal cliff approaching, we just didn't know how the future was going to look," her husband chimed in.

Despite the rising sales numbers, Leutheuser remained "cautiously optimistic."

"We hope that the trend will continue," he said.


The Associated Press and Staff Writers Andrew Edwards, Mariecar Mendoza and Kelly Puente contributed to this report.

karen.robes@presstelegram.com

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