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Auto sales rate may be 14 million by mid-2012: study

(Reuters) - U.S. auto sales may have their strongest month of 2011 in November, spurred by consumers' growing need to replace aging cars and trucks and a wider selection on dealer lots, according to a study released on Thursday.

If current sales trends persist, automakers are poised to sell vehicles at an annual pace of more than 14 million by the second half of 2012, according to a forecast by J.D. Power and Associates and LMC Automotive.

This would represent at least a 10 percent jump from expected 2011 sales, which J.D. Power and LMC now estimate will be around 12.7 million vehicles.

"As long as there is not an external shock or economic setback, the selling rate could be stable above the 14-million-unit level during the second half of 2012," said Jeff Schuster, LMC senior vice president of forecasting.

Total light vehicle sales are expected to rise 8 percent in November compared with a year earlier, according to data gathered from nearly 8,900 dealers during the first half of November.

This signals an annualized sales rate of 13.4 million for the month, up from the 13.2 million sales pace in October.

Carmakers are expected to release U.S. auto sales figures for November on December 1.

U.S. auto sales fell in the spring and early summer due to concerns about the prospect of another U.S. economic downturn and supply disruptions after the March earthquake in Japan.

But in the last three months, monthly sales figures have risen, an indication of both larger inventories and the fact that some consumers can no longer delay vehicle purchases.

The average vehicle on U.S. roads is almost 11 years old, two years older today than the average in 2007, and at some point those cars will break down and spur new car sales.

"The improving performance of the past three months suggests that the current momentum, primarily driven by replacement demand and improvements in vehicle availability, is not an aberration," said John Humphrey, senior vice president of global automotive operations at J.D. Power.

The strong showing in October and November prompted to J.D. Power and LMC to raise slightly their sales projection for 2011 to 12.7 million from 12.6 million, the first time all year the forecast has been raised.

Earlier this month, LMC bought the automotive forecasting unit from J.D. Power. The terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman in Detroit, editing by Matthew Lewis)

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