The housing market is still on shaky ground. Unemployment remains above 8 percent. The one flank of the U.S. economy that's marching steadily back is the sector that once seemed the weakest: automotive.

The auto industry in September reached an important milestone that few other sectors can claim. Carmakers sold cars and light trucks at an annualized rate of 14.9 million, taking into account seasonal adjustments, according to researcher Autodata Corp. That's the best pace since March 2008, before the failure of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

Consumers weary of driving 11-year-old vehicles with poor mileage are increasingly trading in their jalopies for new, fuel-efficient models. Small car sales climbed 50 percent last month as gasoline prices held above $3.75 a gallon. Even pickup sales, linked to the nascent housing industry, are up this year.

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