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WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — J.D. Power and Associates projected a sluggish new-vehicle retail selling rate for January, especially in light of a relatively strong performance during the final month of 2009.

Company analysts predicted that January's sales total would come in at 500,900 units. They indicated that represents a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 7.9 million units.

Comparing January's prediction to December's totals show the disparity. J.D. Power noted a SAAR of 8.9 million for December. Analysts reasoned that robust marketing and incentive programs aided the December performance significantly.

The latest sales projection is off on a year-over-year comparison, as well. J.D. Power recounted a SAAR rate of 8.8 million units for January 2009.

Despite the cloudy picture, Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power, mixed in some hopeful signs with his analysis.

"January is typically a weak selling month, but this month is particularly impacted by December's strong close and extra selling weekend," Schuster explained.

"However, the sales pace has been improving as January continues, which is an encouraging sign for the recovering industry," he added.

Another brightening sales area J.D. Power highlighted was fleets. Analysts expect fleet sales to increase substantially from January of last year, the juncture that marked the lowest level of 2009.

Specifically, the company made a forecast of 659,000 units being sold into fleets this month. That total marks a 9-percent jump from January of 2009.

As a result, the January SAAR for total light-vehicle sales is expected to increase to 10.1 million units, according to J.D. Power. That calculation is still higher compared with 9.6 million units one year ago.

J.D. Power also mentioned that it's maintaining its 2010 forecast at 11.5 million units for total sales and 9.5 million units for retail sales.

"However, with improved leasing availability, loosening credit and healthier economic conditions, the industry's recovery could be more pronounced," analysts pointed out.

Moving on to a discussion about current vehicle inventory, J.D. Power contends that it stands at a 53-day supply. Analysts say this figure averaged 94 days at this point last year.

Because of that inventory differential combined with growing demand, J.D. Power stated that North American vehicle production is expected to increase during the first quarter of this year. That increase is fairly significant — spiking nearly 70 percent to 2.8 million units during the first three months of 2010.

Last year, J.D. Power found that the production total came in at 1.7 million units during the first quarter.

"While North American production remains well below historic levels, the near-term boost will provide much-needed support to the automotive supply base," Schuster interjected.

"Year-over-year increases are expected to continue throughout 2010, resulting in a projected 2 million-unit increase, compared with 2009 levels," he concluded.