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February auto sales starting to thaw

After a series of storms and frigid temperatures chilled U.S. auto sales earlier this month, new sales figures show car buyers are returning to the showroom.

In fact, the consulting firms J.D. Power and LMC Automotive now believe auto sales for February will increase 5 percent compared to the same month last year.


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"Although severe weather impacted sales in early February, the negative effect should be somewhat mitigated since the majority of vehicle sales occur in the second half of the month," said John Humphrey, senior vice president of the global automotive practice at J.D. Power.

For the month, the consulting firms estimate the sales rate will be 15.7 million vehicles, a healthy improvement compared with a disappointing pace of 15.2 million in January.

(Read more: Despite earnings, GM's Barra already leaving mark)

This is welcome news for those wondering if the drop in auto sales in January and early February was a sign of the consumer slowing down.

Sales rebound as storms pass

During the first week of February, auto sales were down roughly 5 percent, according to J.D. Power.

That's not surprising, given a series of storms that battered the East, especially the Southeast and major cities further north.

However, as weather improved in the second week, so did auto sales.

(Read more: Housing starts reel amid January freeze)

After 13 days, sales for the month were down just 1 percent, according to J.D. Power.

Analysts believe Presidents Day weekend and aggressive promotions will spur stronger business in the second half of February.

Customers paying more

The report on sales through midmonth shows customers continue to pay more for new cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles.

"The industry is on track to reach its highest-ever average transaction price for the month of February, with prices exceeding $29,000," Humphrey said. "This beats the previous record from February 2013 by more than $400."

(Read more: US cold snap's latest victim: Industrial output)

Furthermore, J.D. Power and LMC Automotive calculate total consumer spending on new vehicles will top $28.3 billion, an increase of $1.7 billion over last year.

(Read more: Small auto brands steal spotlight from big guys)

Still, despite the encouraging rebound in sales, the heavy inventory being carried by automakers remains a concern.

"While inventory levels are excessive at this point, demand during the spring selling season will help resolve the situation," said Bill Rinna, senior manager of forecasting at LMC Automotive. "However, if inventory is not cleared out by June, production levels in the second half of the year are at risk."

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

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