percent most analysts had expected. The annual sales rate in November of 15.54 million was the industry's strongest for any month since the 15.55 million rate of February 2008.
Superstorm Sandy hurt the last few days of sales in October, which finished below expectations, but many consumers simply shifted their purchases to November. In addition, the average age of cars on the road has risen to just above 11 years, and industry officials say that will continue to drive demand.
McNeil said the auto industry is clearly heading this year toward the high end of GM's forecasted range of 14 million to 14.5 million. Many analysts expect the industry to finish 2012 with 14.4 million sales, which would mark the strongest year since the 16.1 million of 2007.
TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak expects U.S. auto sales to rise to 15.4 million next year. "Stable growth is really the motto of the industry."
Jonathan Browning, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, sees a continuation of a steady recovery for the economy as well as for U.S. December and early 2013 auto sales, but expressed concern about the negative impact on consumer confidence if the fiscal cliff occurs. VW brand sales rose more than 29 percent in November.
Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of U.S. sales, agreed, saying "the clock is kind of ticking," in reference to the Washington talks on avoiding the fiscal cliff.
Ford's November sales rose 6.5 percent to 177,673 vehicles, better than even some of the most optimistic forecasts for the No. 2 U.S. automaker. In a more positive sign for consumer demand, Ford's retail sales rose 12 percent.
The company had its strongest small-car sales for the month in 12 years. Demand for Ford's popular F-150 full-size pickup truck increased 17 percent, while GM's Chevrolet Silverado pickup saw sales drop 10 percent.
GM, with 139 days' worth of Silverado inventory at the end of November, blamed aggressive incentives by Chrysler, Nissan and Ford for the decline, and said it would focus on curtailing production of trucks rather than risk becoming trapped in a price war.
GM, with 96 days' worth of Cruze small cars