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Lackluster December sales don’t faze automakers

After ending 2013 with sales that were more of a whimper than their expected bang, automakers still believe American car buyers have plenty of enthusiasm, and that business will not slow down in 2014.

2013 was the best year for the auto industry since 2007, with sales totaling well above 15 million. It's a big turnaround from 2009, when the industry bottomed out with just 10.5 million cars and trucks being sold.

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"You've got to take a look at it from a quarterly basis or even an annual basis," said Kurt McNeil, vice president of U.S. sales for General Motors. "When we first went into the year we thought it [sales] was going to be in the 15- to 15.5-million-unit range, and it is going to come in about 15.9 million units, so that is good. I think it speaks to the strength of the industry."

Automakers are counting on an improving economy, strengthening consumer confidence and pent-up demand for new trucks to drive stronger sales in 2014. The most recent study from Polk shows the average age of a vehicle in the U.S. is 11 years old, which is a record high.

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But challenges remain, as the industry is seeing a moderation in demand.

"As we move throughout 2014 the rate of growth is going to slow just a bit," said Erich Merkle, sales analyst for Ford Motor. "You are not going to see the same rate of growth that we saw in 2012 and perhaps not the same rate of growth that we saw in this last year in 2013."

Electric vehicles still need a charge

America's interest in electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is still a long way from making a big impact in sales. Green Car Reports said approximately 90,000 plug-in models were sold in the U.S. last year. Although that's a healthy jump from 2012, when about 53,000 plug-in vehicles were sold, the total is roughly one-half of 1 percent of the total number of cars and trucks sold in the U.S. last year.

In the battle for top-selling electric car, the Chevy Volt edged the Nissan Leaf.

GM sold 23,094 Volts and Nissan sold 22,610 Leaf models.

Volt sales actually dropped 1.5 percent in 2013, despite General Motors lowering the price of the extended-range electric car. But GM said the slight dip in sales is not a reason to be concerned about overall demand for the Volt.

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"If you look at our retail business it was up about 3 percent for the calendar year so given the fact that fuel prices have been pretty stable, we are pretty happy with up 3 percent," McNeil said.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

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