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Just in time for Christmas buyers, Chevrolet will begin sales of its much-anticipated Volt, a mass-market hybrid that runs on gasoline and electric power. It was named Motor Trend magazine’s “Car of the Year” and outpaced Toyota’s Prius on the EPA’s fuel-economy rating, with a projected 60 miles per gallon. Nissan’s new battery-powered Leaf also goes on sale this month.

While U.S. automakers stake their hopes on new technology, “there is no high-fiving,” said Mr. De Lorenzo of recent improvements.

“There is no overconfidence, just a quiet belief that they are going in the right direction,” he said. “They are going to stay focused, instead of smelling the roses. They know they got a new lease on life.”

Whether the year-end deals are a bargain for consumers is another matter., a Web-based consumer auto site, found that despite the heavy advertising and glossy commercials, the average incentive spending per car rose only $31 between October and November, when the holiday discounts were supposed to be kicking in. The average incentive per car in November was actually down $255 compared with November 2009, when auto dealers were desperate to lure any shoppers to the showroom.

And some consumer advocates have questioned the whole premise of surprising a spouse or loved one with a new SUV or a Euro-styled roadster on Christmas morning.

“I must admit, I’ve never understood the allure,” Claes Bell, an analyst at the consumer financial website, wrote in a recent post.

“Unless you’re fortunate enough to be able to buy a car with cash as a present for a loved one, taking on a car payment and the other attendant costs of car ownership — insurance, registration, gas, parking, etc. — in the name of the short-term thrill of a magical Christmas morning seems foolish.”