UPDATE 1-AutoNation earnings beat Wall Street estimates
* CEO expects 2013 U.S. auto sales near 15.5 million
* Branding change at 210 franchises
* New-vehicle sales up 19 percent in fourth quarter
Jan 31 (Reuters) - 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.
New-vehicle sales in the fourth quarter rose 19 percent to $2.48 billion.
In early trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday, AutoNation shares were up 0.6 percent at $45.35.
The Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based group also announced that it will change the branding of 210 of its stores to include the name AutoNation. The company said this will help name recognition on social media and online, and allow for national advertising rather than regional ad campaigns.
Changing dealership names to include AutoNation will commence on Friday and continue through June, said Mike Jackson, AutoNation chief executive.
Jackson said he expects U.S. industry new vehicle sales to reach in the "mid-15 million" range in 2013, which would be a rise of 7 percent from last year's 14.5 million vehicles. It would also be the highest sales since 2007.
Jackson said in an interview that 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.
Among them are 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.
But concerns he had several months ago 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 have washed away.
"The American consumer is moving on with their lives," said Jackson. "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."
Jackson said, 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 that they do not have to pile on consumer 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.
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.
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.
For the full year 2012, AutoNation posted net income of $316.4 million, compared with $281.4 million in 2011.
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.