Until October the industry's anemic growth was attributed mostly to fleet sales to governments and corporations.
But now automakers are cautiously optimistic that car buyers are coming out of the hole they've been hiding in for the past two years.
Through October, automakers sold almost 9.6 million cars and trucks in the U.S., 11 percent better than a year ago. The industry is on track to sell about 12 million vehicles in 2010, slower than many had hoped at the start of the year, but most certainly headed in the right direction.
"We believe that a healthy sequential uptick in October ... makes our 12.5 million vehicle forecast in 2011 appear fairly reasonable if not a touch conservative," wrote J.P. Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel.
So what's selling? Pickups. Contractors who had been putting off purchasing new trucks are starting to feel better about the economy, several industry executives note.
As usual, Ford Motor's F-series pickup is the country's most popular vehicle. It's up 30% for the year with 435,000 vehicles sold. General Motors' Chevrolet Silverado is also up, by 15%. The Silverado is the nation's second-best seller, but it's well behind its chief competitor at 302,000 units sold so far in 2010. Introduced in late 2006, it's the oldest pickup on the market. Development work on a replacement had been suspended while GM was in bankruptcy; engineering has only recently been restarted, so a new version won't be out for several years.
Toyota Motor's Camry and Corolla are still among the top 10, but sales of both sedans are down around 6% for the year because of ongoing concerns about Toyota quality recalls. The news is better for Nissan, whose mid-sized Altima is up 11% for the year, holding steady at No. 6 on the Top 10 List.
Other mid-sized family sedans round out the top 10, including No. 4, Honda's Accord (down 3% for the year), No. 8 Ford Fusion (up 21%) and No. 9 Chevy Malibu (up 34%).
The most impressive sales performance of the year goes to the redesigned Hyundai Sonata, which wasn't even in the top 20 a year ago, but has shot to No. 10 so far this year with a 64% sales increase. The Sonata's sharp looks, impressive fuel economy and value for the money have set a new standard in the mid-sized segment.
There's definitely a new horse in the race.