With a 72 per cent increase in deliveries of its 5 Series last month, BMW boosted its annual total by 14 per cent to a record 281,460, edging out Mercedes for a second year. Toyota's Lexus, the US luxury champion for 11 years until 2011, was third at 244,166 after a 23 per cent jump.
Growing sales by leading luxury brands helped to push the industry to a total of 14.5 million deliveries, the most in five years and the first three-year streak of at least 10 per cent increases since 1973. Last year's 13 per cent increase was the biggest since 1984. Analysts project further growth this year to 15.1 million annual light-vehicle sales, a Bloomberg survey found.
"The US is ready to become the cash cow again," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "Right now, we are the brightest bulb in the chandelier."
US manufacturers General Motors (GM), Ford and Chrysler beat estimates for December sales, while major Asian brands missed. For the year, GM's share fell to the lowest level since 1924, while Chrysler surprised analysts by gaining more market share than any manufacturer other than Toyota and Honda.
After sales fell to the lowest level in almost 30 years, the US car industry has clawed its way back and is leading the American economy.
Far more sober than the industry that once pumped up sales with profitless production, Detroit's new break-even point is about 10 million annual auto sales - and this year the possibility is of more than 15 million sales this year.
With the so-called fiscal cliff of tax increases largely avoided and automatic spending cuts delayed, the economy is in good shape to start 2013, said Kurt McNeil, GM's vice president of US sales.
* Bloomberg News