* CEO expects 2013 U.S. auto sales near 15.5 million
* Plans branding change at 210 franchises
* New-vehicle sales up 19 percent in fourth quarter
* Shares up 4.9 percent (Adds analyst comment, updates share price)
By Bernie Woodall
AutoNation Inc, the largest U.S. auto dealer group, said strong new vehicle sales boosted its fourth-quarter net income by 20 percent and revenue by 13 percent, and its shares rose 4.9 percent in early trading.
The group also said that it will change the branding of 210 of its stores to include the name AutoNation. This will help name recognition on social media and online, and allow for national advertising rather than regional ad campaigns, it said.
Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker said the rebranding "is a meaningful change of marketing strategy."
Changing dealership names to include AutoNation will begin Friday and continue through June, said Mike Jackson, AutoNation's chief executive.
Jackson said he expects U.S. industry new vehicle sales to reach in the "mid-15 million" range in 2013, which would mark a rise of about 7 percent from last year and be the highest sales total since 2007.
A combination of factors led to his forecast, which is more bullish than the 15.2 million in a Thomson Reuters poll of analysts this week, Jackson said in an interview. He cited a recovering housing market, the age of cars on the road and their need to be replaced, attractive financing and compelling new vehicles from automakers.
Concerns have washed away about consumers holding off purchases due to talks in Washington about the so-called "fiscal cliff" and upcoming talks about raising the national debt ceiling, he said.
AutoNation stock rose $2.19 or 4.9 percent to $46.94 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
"The American consumer is moving on with their lives," Jackson said.
"They put their lives on hold in '08, '09, and '10. They've paid down debt. They want to move forward in a responsible, rational way but their cars are worn out because everything got postponed for three or four years."
Consumers "really view the situation in Washington as a soap opera with artificial deadlines," which consumers now ignore when deciding whether to buy a new car.
Jackson said auto manufacturers have never been better balanced in terms of matching vehicle production with demand, meaning they do not have to pile on incentives, which harm a used car's residual value. He said 2013 U.S. sales of about 15.5 million will be attained without hefty incentives.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based AutoNation reported fourth quarter net income of $83.2 million, or 67 cents per share, versus $69.4 million, or 49 cents per share a year ago.
Fourth-quarter revenue was $4.17 billion, up from $3.68 billion a year before. New vehicle sales rose 19 percent to $2.48 billion.
Excluding one-time items, AutoNation's earnings per share of 67 cents beat analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S expectations of 64 cents.
AutoNation repurchased 1.3 million shares for $49 million in the fourth quarter, at an average price of $39.21 per share. In 2012, it repurchased 16.6 million shares for $581 million, or $34.89 per share.
(Reporting By Bernie Woodall; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Grant McCool and Nick Zieminski)