Auto sales in the U.S. rose nine percent in December, capping off the best year for the industry since before the recession. Sales were led by international automakers and driven by a recovering economy, more available credit and the need for consumers and businesses to replace aging cars and trucks.

General Motors Co. posted U.S. sales growth of five percent in December compared with the year-ago month, Ford Motor Co increased sales two percent and Chrysler Group LLC's sales rose 10 percent.

For 2012, U.S. auto sales rose 13.5 percent to nearly 14.5 million new vehicles, the best performance since 2007, according to Reuters calculations. In the decade before 2008 when the recession slowed the industry, U.S. auto sales averaged nearly 17 million vehicles a year.

Still, GM and Ford lost market share in 2012, dented by competition from Toyota and Honda which recovered from 2011 earthquake-related setbacks. GM's U.S. market share fell to 17.9 percent from 19.6 percent in 2011 and is now at its lowest level since at least 1960, according to industry journal Ward's Auto. Its market share was 23.5 percent in 2007, before the recession. Ford's 2012 market share fell to 15.5 percent from 16.8 percent in 2011.

Research and consulting firm Polk expects U.S. auto sales to hit 15.3 million vehicles in 2013. GM and Ford both forecasted industry sales of more than 15 million vehicles, but Toyota Motor Corp. offered a more modest forecast of 14.7 million vehicles.

Tom Libby, an analyst at Polk, said low interest rates along with an improved housing sector and new product offerings from major automakers will make 2013 a bullish year.

Detroit's automakers showed December U.S. sales gains of five percent, slightly better than analysts' expectations, but not enough to stave off market-share gains by Toyota and Honda Motor Co Ltd . The two largest Japanese automakers in the U.S. market rebounded from poor showings in 2011 when their inventory was constrained after the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Toyota reported a nine percent U.S. sales increase for December, which met analysts' expectations. Honda's December sales rose 26 percent but fell short of analysts' expectations. Honda sales are up 24 percent on the year.

Toyota's 2012 U.S. sales rose about 27 percent, compared with gains of 3.7 percent for GM, 4.7 percent for Ford and 21 percent for Chrysler.

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