DETROIT -- Three years ago, U.S. car buyers started trickling back into showrooms after largely sitting out the recession. That trickle has turned into a flood.
From owners of revitalized small businesses that need to replace aging pickups to new hires who need a fresh set of wheels for the daily commute, increasingly confident buyers pushed auto sales back to pre-recession levels in the first six months of this year. Sales in the January-June period topped 7.8 million, their best first half since 2007, according to Autodata Corp. and Ward's AutoInfoBank. Automakers reported June sales Tuesday. They rose 9 percent to 1.4 million.
The outlook for the rest of 2013 is just as strong. The factors boosting sales -- low interest rates, wider credit availability, rising home construction and hot new vehicles -- will be around for a while, and experts are hard-pressed for answers when asked what could slow things down.
"It all points to continuing improvement in the auto market," said Mustafa Mohatarem, General Motors' chief economist.
Analysts expect total sales of around 15.5 million cars and trucks in 2013, which would be 1 million more than in 2012. New cars and trucks sold at an annualized rate of 15.96 million in June, the fastest monthly pace since December 2007.
Demand for big pickups has been the driving force. GM, Ford and Chrysler sold 157,480 full-size pickup trucks combined in June. That's up around 25 percent from the same month a year ago and almost double the number the companies sold in June 2009, a year when total sales sank to a 30-year low. GM said its new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, which went on sale last month, are spending just 10 days on dealer lots before being sold. A 60-day stay is typical.
Auto executives said they're not too concerned about recent upticks in loan rates, because there are so many other positive factors encouraging buyers. Ford's U.S. sales chief, Ken Czubay, pointed out that there are still 4 million pickups on the road that are 12 years old or older and will likely need to be replaced soon.