Auto sales predictions for January are mixed

Three auto industry research firms are projecting widely divergent new car sales for January.

TrueCar Inc. of Santa Monica, which analyzes new car pricing, estimates that light-vehicle sales in January will be 728,019 units, down 29% from December but up a solid 11% from the same month last year, after adjusting for the difference in selling days.

January’s forecast translates into an annual sales pace of 11.3 million cars. (Most automakers believe that the industry will sell about 11.5 million vehicles in 2010.)

“The improvements that we have seen in the industry in the last several months have been encouraging,” said Jesse Toprak, a TrueCar analyst. “But we have to remember that this time last year we were just heading into the downward spiral from which the automotive industry is -- just now -- starting to emerge.”

Luxury sales are starting to grow, he said, which “is significant because luxury vehicle sales are a leading indicator of consumer confidence in the marketplace.”

J.D. Power & Associates of Westlake Village, meanwhile, has a more negative outlook.

The auto research and consulting firm estimates that January new vehicle sales will come in at 659,000 units, up 9% from January 2009. That works out to an annual rate of 10.1 million vehicles, more than 1 million less than the TrueCar estimate, but still above the rate of 9.6 million units the industry tallied in January 2009.

“We are reading off of transaction data for the first two weeks of the month. Incentive levels in December drew a lot of buyers,” said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power. “However, the sales pace has been improving as January continues, which is an encouraging sign for the recovering industry.”

Meanwhile, the estimate by, another auto information company in Santa Monica, splits the difference. Edmunds estimates that the January sales numbers will come in at an annualized sales rate of about 10.5 million.

“The discount opportunities between Christmas and New Year’s have become legend. The story is so compelling that the deals don’t actually have to be good, but people will still buy,” Edmunds Chief Executive Jeremy Anwyl said. “There is no such story in January. Deal-sensitive shoppers are waiting for Presidents Day weekend for the deals that they’ve been programmed to expect.”

In another sign that the auto business is rebounding, CarMax Inc., the nation’s largest retailer of used vehicles, said it was looking to hire 600 workers at its showrooms across the country.

Most of the jobs are in sales, but the company also is looking to hire in its service operations, business offices and purchasing department.

Previous auto industry experience is not required for most of the jobs, which are full- or part-time positions, CarMax said.