updated 10/31/2003 5:28:55 PM ET 2003-10-31T22:28:55

Strong summer sales and the end of major fighting in Iraq has improved the U.S. automotive market, raising expected domestic vehicle sales this year to 16.6 million, a dealers group said Thursday.

The chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association said he now expects 2003 U.S. vehicle sales to be 300,000 higher, or 1.8 percent, than he had forecast earlier this year. The forecast is still below the 16.8 million vehicles sold last year, however.

“A strong summer selling season, improving economy and completion of major combat operations in Iraq are favorable signs that auto sales are likely to finish the year somewhat higher than expected,” said Paul Taylor.

He said continuing large incentives on the new 2004 models also are boosting sales.

“This year will mark the fifth straight year of sales above 16 million units — a remarkable accomplishment in a three-year period of economic and global uncertainty,” he said in a news release from the group’s McLean, Va., headquarters.

So-called crossover sport utility vehicles remain a source of strength for vehicle sales, rising 37 percent from one year ago, Taylor said.

The association represents about 19,800 new car and truck dealers with nearly 43,000 franchises, both domestic and foreign.

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