UPDATE: The WardsAutoforecast below looks at the current state of the economy and the directional growth of the industry, but it does not factor in the inevitable impact of Hurricane Sandy on October light-vehicle sales. WardsAuto now is looking for October's SAAR to fall to 14.5 million or less in the wake of the storm.

Relatively steady month-to-month light-vehicle sales in the U.S. should push the seasonally adjusted annual rate to a 55-month high, according to a WardsAuto forecast.

The reports calls for auto makers to sell 1,151,000 LVs in October, equating to a 15 million-unit annual rate, which would mark the first time the SAAR has hit that level since February 2008.

The forecast volume represents a 13.1% improvement in the daily sales rate from year-ago (both months with 26 selling days) and a 6.5% decline in DSR from September (25 selling days).

The expected September-October downshift is less than the 8% average experienced in recent years and reflects an improving economy, expectations of strong fleet sales and at least some aggressive new-model marketing.

Several indicators also suggest the U.S. economic picture is improving in general.

The national unemployment rate dropped to a 44-month low of 7.8% in September, reflecting a net increase of 114,000 nonfarm jobs. The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index increased as well, rising nine points as consumers registered improving outlooks for their present situation and the near-term future.

Housing starts reached a 4-year high, rising 15% from August to September. Increased rental prices and growing housing demand spurred an 11.3% increase from like-2011 in the average price of existing homes, marking the seventh consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Paired with the ongoing push to replace vehicles in an aging fleet, the positive economic news should allow the auto industry to continue its climb toward pre-recession sales rates in the coming months.

WardsAuto’s forecast calls for General Motors to sell 205,000 LVs in October, a 9.7% increase over year-ago that assumes the auto maker will push fleet deliveries beyond last month’s levels and maintain its overall September market share of 17.8%.

Ford’s share should rise from 14.4% last month to just over 15% in October, with a 5.4% year-over-year increase in deliveries. Chrysler is expected to hike sales as much as 18% over like-2011, giving the auto maker an 11.7% slice of monthly volume.

Toyota and Honda will continue to see double-digit growth over inventory-depleted year-ago results through the fourth quarter. Toyota should muster 165,000 deliveries this month, up 23% from last year. Honda, with strong sales of its heavily promoted new Accord, should bolster deliveries 17% to 115,000 units.

Hyundai-Kia outperformed expectations last month, with a combined September DSR of 4,325 units, but it’s unclear whether the companies, which continue to report remarkably low inventories, can maintain that pace. WardsAuto forecasts the South Korean auto makers will sell 101,000 vehicles in October, up 12.3% from year-ago but down 10% from September’s daily rate.

The picture for Nissan is cloudier. The company consistently registers large September-to-October DSR declines, in line with WardsAuto’s forecast of 84,000 deliveries, up just 1.6% over year-ago. However, Nissan has the ability and possibly, in light of declining share, the will to markedly increase its fleet activity, which could lift total deliveries to 90,000 units.

The WardsAuto forecast would bring U.S. LV sales to 12,013,549 units through the first 10 months of 2012, up 14.4% from like-2011.

The actual SAAR through September remained at 14.2 million units, in line with WardsAuto expectations that strong fourth-quarter sales likely will lift full-year LV deliveries from 14.3 million to 14.4 million units.

jsousanis@wardsauto.com