2012 best year for U.S. automakers in 5 years

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A steadily improving economy and strong December sales lifted the American auto industry to its best performance in five years in 2012, especially for Volkswagen and Japanese-brand vehicles, and experts say the next year should be even better.

Manufacturers Thursday announced their final figures, which were expected to total 14.5 million -- 13 percent better than 2011.

More than three years after the federal government's $62- billion auto-industry bailout, Americans had plenty of incentive to buy new cars and trucks in the year just ended. Unemployment eased. And the average age of a car topped 11 years in the United States, a record that spurred people to trade in old vehicles.

"The U.S. light-vehicle sales market continues to be a bright spot in the tremulous global environment," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area industry forecasting firm.

Sales were far better than in the bleak days after the U.S. economy tanked and GM and Chrysler sought bankruptcy protection. Back then, sales fell to a 30-year low of 10.4 million, and they are still far short of the recent peak of around 17 million set in 2005.

Volkswagen led all major automakers with sales up a staggering 35 percent, led by the redesigned Passat midsize sedan. Volkswagen sold more than five times as many Passats last year as it did the year before.

Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for True Car.com, an auto pricing site, called VW "the force to watch in the next several years in the U.S. market." -- AP

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