And growth in retail spending for all of 2012 ended up being less robust than the previous two years. Retail sales rose just 5.2 percent last year — slower than the 7.9 percent growth in 2011 and the 5.6 percent growth in 2010.
Earlier this month, major retailers reported that a last-minute surge in spending helped salvage the crucial holiday shopping season. Retails can often make as much as 40 percent of their annual revenue during the final two months of the year.
In addition to strong car sales, the government retail sales report showed consumers spent 1.4 percent more at furniture stores, 1.4 percent more at health and personal care shop, and 1 percent more at specialty clothing stores.
Sales were flat at general merchandise stores, a category that department stores such as Macy's and big retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target. But that followed a 0.8 percent decline in November.
The economy has shown some signs of improvement in recent months.
Job growth has been steady, although unemployment is still high at 7.8 percent. In December, employers added 155,000 jobs, roughly matching the monthly average in 2011 and 2012.
The once-battered housing market is recovering, which should lead to more construction jobs in the coming months. A gauge of U.S. service firms' business activity expanded in December by the most in nearly a year.