New vehicle sales are likely rebounding this month from a disappointing November, and the big winners again are expected to be the top Asian brands, analysts say.

Merrill Lynch analyst John Casesa forecasts a brisk annualized selling rate of 17.6 million units in December, versus a rate of 16.7 million for the first 11 months of 2004.

Burnham Securities analyst David Healy predicts a slightly lower selling rate of 17.2 million to 17.3 million for December, below last December's pace of nearly 17.5 million units.

The rates indicate what sales would be for the full year if they remained at the same pace for all 12 months. Full-year sales for 2003 were 16.7 million.

Both Casesa and Healy expect sizable gains from foreign brands such as Toyota Motor Corp. (search) and Nissan Motor Co. (search). Both also predict General Motors Corp. (GM), the world's largest automaker, to be down sharply from a year ago, despite its ongoing "red tag" sales promotion and rebates of several thousand dollars on a variety of vehicles.

"So far, the big Japanese makers — Honda, Toyota and Nissan — are having another stellar month, while we think GM and Ford (F) are down," Casesa said in a research note Wednesday. "As a result, we believe Detroit must respond to avoid a multipoint share loss in December, and that GM and Ford will pull out all stops to drive volume between Christmas and New Year's Day."

GM's latest sales push was widely expected after business fell 13 percent last month and its U.S. market share sank to one of its lowest points on record at 24.8 percent. Its U.S. sales through November were off nearly 1 percent from a year ago.

No. 2 Ford's business was off nearly 5 percent for the first 11 months of 2004.

DaimlerChrysler AG's (DCX) Chrysler Group has been the lone gainer among Detroit's Big Three. Its sales, lifted by heavy demand for its Chrysler 300C sedan, were up 3.2 percent through November.

Even if GM and Ford sweeten their incentive offers in the next week, Casesa said, the efforts are likely to be hampered by two factors.

First, "both have already pushed incentives so high for so long, their ability to stimulate demand is limited," he said. "Second, Christmas and New Year's holidays fall on weekends, and weekends are when most cars are sold" anyway.

Casesa's year-over-year predictions for December: GM down 5 percent, Ford off 7 percent and Chrysler up 2 percent.

He expects foreign brands to be up 8 percent, led by double-digit gains at Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

"Honda, Toyota and Nissan seem to have stepped up incentive spending by offering dealer rebates and low lease rates on their high-volume products" such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, Casesa noted.

Healy's December outlook: GM off 15 percent, Ford up 1 percent, Chrysler up 4 percent, Toyota up 13 percent and foreign brands overall up 6 percent.

In late morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange, GM shares were down 28 cents at $39.86, Ford shares were down 5 cents at $14.78 and Chrysler shares were up 39 cents at $47.84.