AutoNation Inc., the top U.S. auto dealership chain, is ready to go on offense by acquiring new stores and buying more vehicles as it bets that the battered U.S. auto market is headed for a long and steady recovery, the company's chief executive said.

We're through the abyss. We're through the trough, there's no question in my mind, AutoNation Chief Executive Mike Jackson said in an interview with Reuters.

Jackson forecast a gradual recovery in U.S. auto sales that would take the market back from near 10 million sales this year to more than 15 million unit sales over the next several years.

We're not afraid to buy Ford or Chevy franchises where we were in the past, Jackson said in a wide-ranging interview at his company's headquarters. We've increased our orders by 50 percent for inventory. We're doing a whole range of things as we move out of a defensive posture. (Reporting by Kevin Krolicki, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)