What a difference 11 months make. After starting 2012 with a monthly sales rate of just under 14 million vehicles automakers ended the year with the December sales rate expected to be about 1.5 Million vehicles stronger. The final monthly sales rate is projected to be 15.5 million vehicles.
Dealers and analysts attribute the strong December sales to the gradually improving economy, pent-up demand and Americans not being discouraged as the fiscal cliff negotiations dragged on.
(Read More: US Auto Sales to Drive Past 15 Million in 2013.)
"The economic factors are still positive, housing, availability of consumer credit, autos have certainly helped lead the charge, but December is typically a good month for the auto industry," said Kurt McNeil, vice president of U.S. sales for General Motors. "The fact that Washington made some progress towards the end of the month certainly didn't hurt so we feel really good about where we finished."
For the year, automakers are projected to have sold 14.5 million vehicles in the U.S., a 13 percent increase over 2011.
GM cuts truck inventory
Heading into December one area of concern for auto analysts on Wall Street was GM's bloated inventory of pick-up trucks. (Read More: GM Bets Big on Its Next Generation Pickups.)
At the end of December it stood at 139 days, roughly double the supply automakers consider to be healthy. Despite calls to curb production, General Motors continued building its Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra while also increasing incentives. The money spent paid off as GM cut its supply of trucks down to 80 days, a much healthier and manageable level.
(Read More: Hybrids Are Best Value for Auto Buyers: Report.)
Still, it's not all good news for GM. The automaker's share of the U.S. market continues to slide, it is projected to finish the year at 17.9 percent. If that happens, it would be the lowest ever year-end market share. To help put this in perspective of how far it has fallen, in 1990 GM controlled 35.4 percent of the market.
52-week high stock prices
Despite losing market share compared to 2011, GM and Ford are looking much more attractive to investors. After capping the year with better than expected sales in December, shares of GM and Ford both hit 52 week highs. For the year GM shares are up 41.7 percent and Ford is up 22.6 percent.
—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau; Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews
Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com
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