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Autos to lead US economic growth in 2014: CEOs

More than five years after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression shook global economies and markets alike, some top CEOs told CNBC on Monday the U.S. economy has finally begun to rev up, with a strong growth outlook across the board, but especially in the automotive sector.

The head honchos—representing major retailers and automakers—acknowledged the recent growth may have gone unnoticed, especially as job creation in December was at its lowest level in nearly three years. The economy produced just 74,000 jobs in December, far fewer than the roughly 200,000 jobs economists had forecast.

(Read more: Job growth weak, raising questions about Fed move)

Still, the top bosses remained optimistic about economic growth in the new year.

"It's not obvious that the economy is moving aggressively forward. It's clear. It's not obvious," said Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy's, on CNBC. "But I am looking at the fundamentals that are in place are better at this point and time than they were a year ago."

The top boss at retailer Target also reported growth, noting the economy is "chugging along, but improving." However, CEO Gregg Steinhafel said the "star of the economy" has been the auto sector.

"Since we came out of the '08 and '09 timeline, we've seen steady growth. I think hopefully we will continue to see that," said Mary Barra, incoming CEO of General Motors, on CNBC. "There will be some ups and downs. But we are looking to continue to build and again with great products we are looking to take advantage of that as well."

It does appear as though the auto sector is gaining steam in the U.S., with several automakers seeking to increase production in North America in response to high demand.

(Read more: Global auto sales hit record high)

Volkswagen, for example, plans to invest $7 billion over the next five years in North America to increase production and spur sales.

Daimler is considering building another plant in North America to ramp up production and meet increased demand, CEO Dieter Zetsche said at a recent Mercedes-Benz event in Detroit.

"We are going to hire another 11,000 employees worldwide, another 5,000 employees to support our increasing production in the United States," said Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor, on CNBC.

However, he said that the recent jobs growth extends beyond the auto industry to nearly all of the sectors Ford supports, including and especially housing, construction and energy.

In turn, Mulally expects the U.S. economy to expand at a 2.5 percent clip in 2014.

—By CNBC's Drew Sandholm. Follow him on Twitter @DrewSandholm.

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