WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — New-vehicle sales this month have been strong month to date, with the selling rate outperforming January's, reported J.D. Power and Associates.

February new-vehicle retail sales are projected to come in at 857,400 units, an increase of 5 percent from February 2011, according to the forecast. This represents a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 12 million units, which is more than a million-unit increase in the selling rate from January 2012.

"Retail light-vehicle sales in February are strong, which makes us modestly optimistic about the growth of sales going forward," said John Humphrey, senior vice president of global automotive operations at J.D. Power and Associates. "More so, we're increasingly confident that the fundamentals are in place to continue to support an upbeat sector outlook for the coming year."

In addition to pent-up demand due to an aging fleet, factors driving this optimism include a rebound in leasing and availability of consumer credit and long-term financing. Through the first 17 selling days of February 2012, lease penetration is at 20 percent, up from a low of 13 percent in 2009.

Meanwhile, 72-month loans account for 23 percent of all retail sales in February 2012 — the highest level in five years — up from 19 percent in February 2011. The companies reported that 72-month loans have increased in 20 of the 27 vehicle segments, with the largest increases in the compact sport, sub-compact conventional and large utility segments.

"We're seeing a rebound in leasing and a slight improvement in credit availability, which is bringing customers that were shut out of the market two or three years ago back into dealerships," Humphrey said. "Both of these elements bode well for consumers in terms of making vehicles more affordable, which will drive more traffic into showrooms."

Total light-vehicle sales in February are expected to come in at about 1.065 million units, a 3 percent increase from February 2011. After a fleet mix of 25 percent in January 2012, levels are expected to settle in the 19 percent range in February, which is slightly below levels one year ago.

As pronounced recovery in vehicle sales continues through February, the company is increasing its forecast for total light-vehicles in 2012 to 14 million units (from 13.8 million units) and to 11.4 million units for retail light-vehicle sales (from 11.3 million units).

"Concerns about the financial crisis in Europe are not holding back the momentum of the automotive recovery in the U.S.," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive, which also provided data for the forecast. "The industry is currently well positioned for the best performance since 2007 and is expected to approach full recovery in the next two years with total light-vehicle sales at 16 million units by 2014."

J.D. Power and LMC Automotive U.S. Sales and SAAR Comparisons

February 20121

January 2012

February 2011

New-vehicle retail sales

857,400 units

(5% higher than February 2011)2

682,171 units

785.698 units

Total vehicle sales

1,064,700 units

(3% higher than February 2011)

911,370 units

991,576 units

Retail SAAR

12.0 million units

10.9 million units

11.0 million units

Total SAAR

14.0 million units

14.1 million units

13.3 million units