Ward’s Communications today forecast that US light-vehicle sales will remain sluggish in February, continuing the payback for last autumn’s incentives binge that pulled car-buying forward from this year.

Ward’s forecast, updated monthly for subscribers to WardsAuto.com, sees this month’s sales of cars and light trucks tracking to a seasonally adjusted annual rate (Saar) of 15.89 million. Although slightly higher than January’s 15.79 million, the SAAR remains below the 16 million level that has become the benchmark of a good month. During fourth-quarter 2001, zero-interest financing swelled sales to an 18.6 million rate.

At the forecast SAAR, February’s actual sales volume will be 7.9 percent behind year-ago, or 1.25 million units. Ward’s expects imported vehicle sales to jump nearly 20 percent, with domestically built models slumping 13 percent.

“Inventory is high enough to support an even bigger month,” said Haig Stoddard, Ward’s manager of industry analysis. “But March production schedules would have to be increased to meet second-quarter demand — normally the highest-volume quarter of the year — if the combined annual sales rate of February and March stays close to the 16 million-unit level.”