U.S. auto sales for 2012 to be announced later this week are a shoo-in to be the best since 2007, and more than 1.5 million units higher than 2011.

According to Forbes, the good news is that the downsized domestic car companies – the Chrysler Group, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors – are far more profitable at total U.S. industry sales of 14.5 million than they were before the recession, at an average sales rate of more than 16 million.

The bad news is that it could be another couple of years before U.S. auto sales top 16 million again, analysts said.

The car companies are expected to announce U.S. auto sales on  Jan. 3 for the month of December 2012 and for the full year.

Forecasts for full-year 2012 auto sales average out at around 14.5 million cars and trucks, up 13% from around 12.8 million in 2011. That’s according to Peter Nesvold, New York-based analyst for Jefferies & Co. Inc.

That makes 2012 the best year since 2007. In only 11 months of 2012, U.S. auto sales already topped all of 2011.

Despite the improvement, auto sales still have a lot of catching up to do. U.S. auto sales bottomed out in 2009, the year that GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy.

Sales in 2009 were only 10.4 million. That was the lowest point for U.S. auto sales per capita since World War II.

How low was 2009? Sales were down close to 3 million units from 2008, which was down close to 3 million units from 2007.

What that means is, even after three years of double-digit improvement, 2012 auto sales will still be nearly 1.8 million below 2007, when sales were 16.2 million.

As fewer people bought new cars, the age of the average car on the road has increased to a record high of more than 11 years old, according to the R.L. Polk Co.

It’s going to take years of sales improvements to slow down the rate of increase in that number.