Pent-up demand from consumers who held off buying new cars during the recession will help push 2012 US light vehicle sales up 1m units, or about 8%, according to Toyota Motor Sales president Jim Lentz.

He told Reuters 2012 sales would be around 13.6m, up from about 12.6m to 12.7m this year.

He said Toyota would be back to full inventory by February, almost a year after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan disrupted parts supplies to assembly plants in Japan and North America.

Lentz said US sales would reach 15m to 16m by the middle of the decade, in line with other forecasts. Annual US sales were running near 17m until 2008 when the recession caused the biggest downturn in three decades. The low point was in 2009 when sales were 10.4m and China became the world’s biggest market.

“I think we’re starting to see the automotive sector recover beyond what’s happening in the economy,” said Lentz.

The average vehicle age in the United States is about 11 years, but consumers are getting ready to buy new ones at greater rates, partly because slack sales since 2008 have left fewer recent-model used cars, Lentz said in an interview after Toyota opened its latest US assembly plant in Mississippi.

That plant, planned and started before the recession, had been mothballed since construction was completed in 2009.

Lentz said surveys showed that 11% of US households have members who have expressed intent to buy a new vehicle in the next year, up from 8% in late 2010.

“At the same time we are seeing a decline in consumer confidence, we’re seeing the intent to purchase increasing,” said Lentz. “We’re starting to see pent-up demand now trumping whatever is going on in the overall economy.”

Lentz said he expected November US auto sales to be 13.5mi to 13.6m on a seasonally adjusted annualised basis.

He said Toyota’s sales incentives, which have been falling, are not expected to spike as its US inventory levels rise after the effects of the earthquake in Japan.

Toyota’s US inventory slipped to a low of 120,000 vehicles earlier this year, half the level the automaker likes to have, Lentz said.

“We started this month around 160,000” vehicles in US inventory, Lentz told Reuters. “We will probably get to 200,000 by the end of the year and probably February or so we will be back to 240,000.”