* Factory production growth beats market expectations
* January is unusual due to maintenance shutdowns at plants
BUENOS AIRES Feb 25 Argentina's industrial production started the year with a modest improvement , rising 0.2 percent in January from a year earlier after output shrank 1.2 percent in 2012 as a whole, government data showed on Monday.
The figure came in above the median market view for a 1.1 percent decline in output. Eight analysts polled by Reuters gave widely varying estimates for industrial production, ranging from a 2.5 percent year-on-year drop to a 1.5 percent increase.
Factory output rose 0.6 percent in January compared with December, seasonally adjusted.
In the crucial automobile industry, which suffered the impact of slowed Brazilian demand last year, production rose 5.3 percent versus January 2012.
Output fell 36.1 percent versus December 2012, however, probably as a result of planned maintenance stoppages during the southern hemisphere's peak summer month.
In December, Argentine industrial production dropped 3.4 percent from a year earlier in non-seasonally adjusted terms, and dipped 0.6 percent versus November.
Industrial output fell in 2012, marking the first decline since a wrenching economic crisis a decade earlier.
This stemmed in part from a downturn in the auto industry, although tough import rules also played a role by delaying the entry of some foreign-made parts and currency controls hurt investment.
Growth in Latin America's No. 3 economy slowed sharply in 2012 after booming during most of the previous nine years.