A 2013 Cadillac ATS gets ready to come off the assembly line at the General Motors Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant July 26, 2012 in Lansing, Mich. - 

Carmakers are nearing the finish line for 2012, and they're closing in on a record year in sales. Never before have annual sales surpassed 80 million vehicles around the world, but they're on track to reach that milepost by year's end.

Strong auto sales in the U.S. and Asia this year have helped to offset Europe's soft economy. Through the end of November, for example, Japanese government incentives had ignited auto sales there by more than 30 percent.

Toyota has rebounded so dramatically, in fact, that it is considered likely to recapture the crown from General Motors as the world's biggest automaker. At the same time, however, GM and other carmakers have enjoyed a third straight year of solid gains.

"Quite honestly, the year has exceeded everybody's expectations," says George Magliano, chief economist for the research firm IHS Automotive.

Industry-watchers point to easier availability of credit and pent up demand from customers who put off car purchases as they weathered the Great Recession.

"The average age of the vehicle on the road remains over a decade," explains Edmunds analyst Michelle Krebs.

Consumers are also attracted by what may be the best selection of vehicles ever, according to analyst Jesse Toprak at the data-tracking firm TrueCar.com. "In terms of styling, safety, the integration of technology, whenever there's great product," Toprak explains, "it compels people to buy."

Krebs says it's looking like the auto industry is in the driver's seat, when it comes to pulling the economy out of the mud. She expects pent up demand will keep auto sales strong for "at least a couple more years" -- barring, she cautions, some kind of "fiscal cliff" ahead.