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GM cars: Good December sales can't make up for poor 2010

GM cars sold better in December than November – up 8.5 percent – but all of the Big Three had a rough year. 2010 was the second-worst year for domestic car sales since 1982.

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Truck sales were in the doldrums a year ago. Now the industry is benefiting from pent-up demand. Many people can no longer delay replacing old vehicles they've driven as far as they can go. The average vehicle on the road is now more than 10 years old, according to research firm R.L. Polk.

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"In the pickup segment, we're dealing with buyers who just need a truck," said Bob Carter, head of the Toyota division.

Consumers are less frightened by paying $3 to $3.50 a gallon after seeing prices peak at more than $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008.

"It's no big deal," Jesse Toprak, an auto analyst with in Santa Monica, Calif., said. "When gas prices have peaked in the past, the love affair with SUVs and big vehicles came back and it is far from over now."

It's not necessary to buy an electric car to reduce the nation's oil consumption. Technologies such as direct-fuel injection, turbo charging and 6-speed transmissions have boosted the efficiency of newer SUVs and crossovers.

"These aren't the same old SUVs you remember from the '90s," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst with "You've got crossovers that are getting well into the 30 mpg range."

If gas prices continue rising, a wave of new small cars introduced in coming months such as the Fiat 500 minicar, the all-new Ford Focus and the Chevrolet Sonic will help automakers. Toyota's Prius sales jumped 32.8 percent in December after several soft months. A new midsize Prius and a new plug-in version of the popular hybrid are coming soon.

Chevrolet sold 10,865 of its Cruze compact, a 25 percent improvement over year-earlier sales of the Cobalt it replaced. Ford has sold 23,273 of its Fiesta subcompact since its June debut, reaching many buyers who had not owned a Ford, especially in California, said Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of marketing and sales.

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