NEW ORLEANS (AP) – U.S. sales of cars and light trucks will rebound in 2009 from dismal levels in last year’s fourth quarter, but they still won’t match 2008’s full-year sales, the chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association predicted Sunday.

Economist Paul Taylor said sales in the first half of the year will remain slow, but slight economic improvement starting in the third quarter should push sales to at least 12.7 million vehicles for the year.

That’s still 3.8 percent shy of last year’s 13.2 million in sales, but better than the 10.3 million annual selling rate in December. Other analysts and automakers have predicted sales as low as 10.5 million for the entire year in 2009.

Taylor said auto sales are tied to the fall in real estate values, and in order for vehicle sales to recover in 22 states, housing values must stabilize. The states generally are along both coasts, in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes.

States with the highest residential real estate value declines are Nevada, California, Florida and Arizona, and all of them have among the highest percentage drops in new-car registrations, Taylor said.

Unemployment will peak at over 8 percent in 2010, even as the economy starts to recover, Taylor predicted. The national jobless rate in December was 7.2 percent.

Taylor, in an interview, also predicted that gasoline prices would be in the range of $1.50 to $2.50 a gallon for the year.

He predicted stronger car and truck sales in 2010 as more young people reach car-buying age and get jobs.

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