U.S. auto sales continued to creep out of the cellar in November

For the second month in a row, U.S. auto sales in November almost exactly matched the year-ago month.

That’s an improvement over most of 2009, in which nearly every brand in the U.S. market measured “success” as a shrinking rate of decline.

Car companies and auto industry analysts say the November results show a much-needed recovery is on a more solid footing. However, Ford Senior Economist Emily Kolinski-Morris cautioned that to consumers, “It won’t feel like a recovery,” until employment picks up.

U.S. auto sales were 746,928 in November, a virtual dead heat with the year-ago month, according to AutoData Corp. Year-to-date sales were down 24 percent from the year-ago period, to about 9.4 million.

Of the Detroit Big Three companies, Chrysler continues to lag Ford (F) and General Motors. That’s most likely because Chrysler’s lineup is more heavily skewed towards trucks, like the Dodge Ram pickup, which fell 37 percent for the month, despite lots of advertising. Overall, Chrysler sales fell 25.5 percent for the month, versus the year-ago month. Ford sales were virtually flat, down 0.1 percent. GM sales slipped only 1.5 percent.

The Seasonally Adjusted Annual Sales Rate in November was 10.9 million units, AutoData said. That was the second month in a row with a SAAR above 10 million, and the best month this year except for July and August, when “Cash for Clunkers” boosted sales. The SAAR is an estimate based on sales history, of how many cars the industry would sell in a year at the current sales rate, adjusted for seasonal variation.

What’s more, the domestic companies are putting their money where their mouth is and hiking production to meet somewhat stronger demand. The year-over-year comparisons are magnified by the fact that production was extraordinarily low a year ago. That’s the best evidence they believe the recovery is for-real.

Ford’s current production plan is 58 percent ahead of the year-ago period, said Ford U.S. Sales Analyst George Pipas. “It’s a big increase from last year, when we were in the eye of the hurricane,” he said in a conference call.

Brian Johnson, auto industry analyst for Barclays Capital, said in a newsletter for investors the increased production demonstrates, “the manufacturers do not see the November SAAR as an anomaly, but rather as part of an expected sales recovery which should pick up some additional steam in 2010.”

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