A steadily improving economy lifted General Motors Co. to its highest December sales in five years, according to numbers released Thursday by the automaker.
A 27 percent increase in December sales over last year by the Lordstown-built Chevrolet Cruze helped push GM's combined mini, small and compact car sales up 52 percent year over year.
New car owners took delivery on 21,230 Cruzes in December, the most of any Chevy car. Nearly 50,700 Silverado pickup trucks were sold, as were 19,551 Chevy Equinox SUVs.
The Cruze was touted as one of the products providing GM with a foundation for the future in both sales and technology.
''In 2013, GM will introduce a new 2-liter clean diesel Cruze,'' said Kurt McNeil, GM's vice president of U.S. sales operations.
The new diesel Cruze, which will be assembled at the Lordstown plant, is set to launch by spring.
Workers at the Lordstown plant will return to work Monday after a three-week shutdown over the holidays to help ''right-size'' dealer inventory, which now stands at a 68-day supply, automaker officials said.
McNeil said the company feels good with the size of the inventory.
''Especially going into a year where we see steady, incremental growth, we feel good where our inventory levels are,'' McNeil said Thursday.
Even with the three-week shutdown, the Lordstown plant pumped out 12,258 Cruzes in December, and 279,382 Cruzes in the calendar year, GM production statistics show.
GM was just part of the American auto industry that was touting 2012 as its best performance in five years, and experts are predicting next year should be even better.
Manufacturers on Thursday announced their final figures, which were expected to total 14.5 million, or 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. Home sales and prices rose. And the average age of a car topped 11 years in the U.S., a record that spurred people to trade in old vehicles. Banks made that easier by offering low interest rates and greater access to loans, even for buyers with lousy credit.
"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.
The best part of 2012 came at the end, when special deals on pickup trucks and the usual round of sparkling holiday ads helped December sales jump 10 percent to more than 1.3 million, the TrueCar.com auto pricing site predicted. That would translate to an annual rate of more than 15.6 million, making December the strongest month of 2012.
Volkswagen led all major automakers with sales up a staggering 35 percent, led by the redesigned Passat midsize sedan. VW sold more than five times as many Passats last year as it did in 2011.
Toyota, which has recovered from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crimped its factories two years ago, saw sales jump 27 percent for 2012. December sales were up 9 percent. Unlike 2011, the company had plenty of new cars on dealer lots for most of last year.
Honda sales rose 24 percent for the year. Nissan and Infiniti sales were up nearly 10 percent as the Nissan brand topped 1 million in annual sales for the first time. Hyundai sales rose 9 percent for the year to just more than 703,000, the Korean automaker's best year in the U.S.
Chrysler, the smallest of the Detroit carmakers, had the best year among U.S. companies. Its sales jumped 21 percent for the year and 10 percent in December. Demand was led by the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Ram pickup and Chrysler 300 luxury sedan.
But full-year sales at Ford and General Motors showed smaller gains. Ford edged up 5 percent and GM rose only 3.7 percent for the year.
In response, GM executives said the company has the oldest model lineup in the industry, yet it still posted a sales increase and commanded high prices for cars and trucks. The company plans to refurbish 70 percent of its North American models in the next 18 months and expects to boost sales this year.
''We're always concerned about market share, always,'' said North American President Mark Reuss. ''But we are not going to give it away like we did in the past. ... Give us 18 months and you're going to see the whole portfolio turned."
Going forward, Ford chief economist, Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, said Ford is concerned about an increase in the federal payroll tax, scheduled to climb to 6.2 percent this year from 4.2 percent in 2011 and 2012. That amounts to a $1,000 to $1,500 tax increase per household, she said.
"We will look at that closely because it will crimp spending in the months ahead," she said.
December featured year-end deals on GM's big pickup trucks. The company offered discounts up to $9,000 to help clear growing inventory, and it worked. GM cut its full-size pickup supply by more than 20,000 in December to about 222,000.
General Motors officials on Thursday also were boasting the fact that in December the company became the first U.S. automaker to produce annual sales of more than a million vehicles with an EPA-estimated 30 mpg or better on the highway.
''No domestic automaker has ever done this,'' McNeil said.
Tribune Chronicle Business Editor Brenda J. Linert and Associated Press Auto writer Dee-Ann Durbin contributed to this story.