DETROIT Auto sales rose more than 11 percent in January, a surprisingly robust showing that marked the strongest annualized sales rate for the industry in nearly two-and-a-half years.
The surge in sales, led by Chrysler Group LLC and Volkswagen of America (VOWG_p.DE), was propelled by the growing need for American drivers to replace their aging cars and trucks. Higher used-car prices and low interest rates also helped spur sales, executives and analysts said.
"Normally you have a little bit of the December hangover," Al Castignetti, head of U.S. sales for Nissan brand, said.
"January starts out very slow and you try to make the month in the last 10 days," he added. "The absolute opposite happened this year."
U.S. auto sales rose 11.4 percent in January, nearly twice the rate analysts had expected. The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate rose to 14.18 million vehicles, according to Autodata, which tracks industry sales and inventory figures.
That marked the highest sales rate for the industry since August 2009, when the U.S. government was running the "cash for clunkers" trade-in incentive program. Most analysts had expected a sales rate of about 13.5 million in January, typically one of the slowest months of the year.
"The momentum that we saw in the fourth quarter actually continued to speed up in January," Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) U.S. sales chief Bob Carter said during a conference call.
The average vehicle on U.S. roads is almost 11 years old - a record - and owners are now trading in older vehicles they kept during the economic downturn.
Stable gasoline prices have also helped spur vehicle sales, Ford Motor Co (F.N) economist Jenny Lin said, adding that the Federal Reserve's promise to keep interest rates low through late 2014 will also support vehicle sales in the future.
Sales rose even as automakers refrained from the generous consumer incentives that were the mainstay of U.S. automakers' strategy before the financial crisis. Last January, General Motors Co (GM.N) offered incentives to jump-start sales, but it has since pulled back from this approach.
"The old days of going blindly after market share are over, and most manufacturers are now concentrating on what really matters, which is profitability," said TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak.
CHRYSLER, VW SALES SURGE
U.S. auto sales, an early snapshot of consumer demand each month, have been a bright spot for the economy, which is in the midst of a slow recovery.
Chrysler, now managed by Italy's Fiat SpA FIA.MI, posted a 44 percent rise in U.S. auto sales in January, led by gains for its Jeep brand. VW rose 48 percent to 27,209 vehicles, buoyed by the introduction of its Passat sedan.
Chrysler sales blew past some expectations of a 35 percent increase. The No. 3 U.S. automaker also swung to a profit with full-year 2011 net income of $183 million.
In the U.S. market, GM ranks first, followed by Ford, Toyota and Chrysler. In 2011, vehicle sales rose 10.3 percent to 12.8 million and in December the sales rate was nearly 13.6 million.
GM predicted that light vehicle sales in 2012 would be between 13.5 million and 14 million. Volkswagen projected 13.7 million sales. Toyota predicted a 13.6 million sales rate.
Ford expects full-year sales will wind up between 13.5 million and 14.5 million, including medium and heavy trucks. Medium and heavy trucks typically account for annual sales of 300,000.
Toyota sales rose 7.5 percent to 124,540 in January. Nissan sales in the United States rose 10.4 percent to 79,313.
GM sales totaled 167,962 vehicles in January, a 6 percent decline. GM was expected to show a decline of about 9 percent from last January.
Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, reported a 7.4 percent increase in auto sales for the month, spurred by a 60 percent jump in Focus small car sales. Some analysts expected Ford to report a monthly sales increase of up to 9 percent.
GM shares closed 1.5 percent higher at $24.37 on Wednesday, while Ford shares fell 0.7 percent to $12.33.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall, Ben Klayman and Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Maureen Bavdek and Matthew Lewis)