* JD Power raises 2011 sales forecast to 13 mln vehicles
* Stronger economy drives upgrade, could move higher
* January U.S. sales seen at 12.2 mln unit sales rate
DETROIT, Jan 21 (Reuters) - J.D. Power, which tracks the U.S. auto market, on Friday raised its forecast for 2011 sales by almost 2 percent on the basis of a strong start to sales in January.
The forecasting and sales-tracking firm said it expected 2011 sales to total nearly 13 million vehicles, up from an earlier forecast for 12.8 million vehicles.
“Optimism is increasing for the auto industry following a stronger outlook for the economy,” Jeff Schuster, director of forecasting at J.D. Power, said in a statement.
If the economy improves “and credit availability increases, further upside potential remains,” he said.
J.D. Power said it expected January auto sales to be near 12.2 million vehicles on the annualized and seasonally adjusted basis tracked by the industry.
That would be up sharply from 10.7 million a year earlier and down slightly from 12.5 million in December.
“The month of January typically experiences a much more pronounced pullback in sales,” Schuster said.
J.D. Power, which gathers sales data from almost 9,000 U.S. car dealerships, said it expected that the closely watched category of retail sales would be up 23 percent in January from a year earlier.
Retail sales, or sales to consumers through dealerships, are watched as the best indicator of underlying demand since overall, industry-wide sales can be skewed by the inclusion of sales to fleet operators, including car rental agencies.
J.D. Power expects North American vehicle production to be 12.6 million vehicles in 2011, up about 7 percent from 2010. New versions of the Ford Focus, Chrysler 300 and Honda Civic are set to start production in the first quarter. (Reporting by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)