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Detroit’s automakers expect improving economic conditions to produce a solid rebound in industry sales this year.

“Not only is the U.S. economy on the mend, we’re in a boom here,” said Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, Ford Motor Co. economist, speaking at the Society of Automotive Analysts 16th Annual Automotive Outlook Conference.

U.S. light vehicle sales should hit at least 17 million this year, she said, up from 16.7 million in 2003, their lowest level in five years. In the past six months of 2003, the industry’s annualized selling rate reached approximately 17.5 million units.

Yet the industry won’t see the typical boost that follows a recession, as the recent downturn was “much more muted” than past downturns, said Mustafa Mohatarem, chief economist at General Motors Corp.

Big Three economists said U.S. gross domestic product, a key economic indicator, will rise by more than 4 percent this year, after inching up about 1 percent last year. The trend will breed greater consumer confidence, and should positively influence auto sales, they said.

Deep discounting on new vehicles will also continue in 2004, said Jeremy Anwyl, president of Yet “the levels for 2004 probably aren’t going to be a lot higher, which is really the first time in quite a few years you could say that,” he said.

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