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UPDATE 1-Strong car sales, easier loans drive Asbury Auto profit

Tuesday, 4 Feb 2014 | 7:39 AM ET

Feb 4 (Reuters) - U.S. auto dealer Asbury Automotive Group Inc posted a better-than-expected quarterly profit as an improving economy and easier availability of loans encouraged more Americans to buy cars.

Asbury, which gets most of its revenue from sales of luxury cars made by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Nissan , said it sold 10 percent more new cars in the fourth quarter.

Last year was the auto industry's best since the boom times before 2008, and several executives and analysts expect the industry's growth to continue outpacing the overall U.S. economy as it has since the recession.

Banks have eased lending norms for subprime borrowers, driving up sales of used cars. Lending to such borrowers had dried up since 2008.

Asbury said used-car sales jumped 24 percent in the quarter ended Dec. 31. ()

"We believe the automotive retail environment will remain healthy in 2014 as more customers take advantage of the extremely attractive financing options to replace their aging vehicles with the many exciting new vehicles available today," said Chief Executive Craig Monaghan in a statement.

Asbury earned 88 cents per share from continuing operations on an adjusted basis in the quarter. Analysts on average had expected 82 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue rose 13 percent to $1.37 billion, topping the average analyst estimate of $1.33 billion.

Net income rose to $26.9 million, or 87 cents per share, in the fourth quarter, from $22.8 million, or 73 cents per share, a year earlier.

Asbury's shares closed at $45.42 on the New York Stock Exchange on Monday.

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