U.S. auto sales are on course this year to challenge historic sales levels, according to J.D. Power and Associates.Sales of new light vehicles through October reflected a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 17.1 million units, according to Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power and Associates. Power Information Network, which gathers new-vehicle retail transaction data from more than 5,000 participating auto franchises in 23 U.S. markets, projects November sales through the Thanksgiving holiday at an 18 million-unit selling rate.“Although we’re not yet through November, and December could be the weakest sales month of the year, sales in 2001 are likely to be the second-best year in history,” said Dr. Van Bussmann, senior vice president of global forecasting at Power. “If November sales continue to track at an 18 million-unit pace, December sales need to exceed only 13.3 million units to surpass 1999 levels. This makes 2001 a virtual shoo-in to become the second-best selling year in history.”Even if November sales come in at only a 17 million-unit pace, December sales must total 14.3 million to surpass the 16.9 plateau.New-vehicle sales established an all-time record in 2000 with 17.4 million units sold, topping the previous high of 16.9 million units set in 1999.“In either scenario, the December hurdle is reasonably attainable,” Bussmann said. “December was the weakest month of 2000 and still came in at a 15.4 million-unit selling rate. While there are a lot of variables that may play a factor in December, it still appears quite possible that the continuation of zero-percent financing deals by manufacturers into December and January will keep sales above a 14 million-unit pace next month.“The danger to December sales projections is that consumers, suffering from incentive fatigue, will switch their attention to holiday shopping rather than kicking tires,” Bussmann added.