* Auto sales up 14 percent; sales pace at 15.3 mln-Autodata
* GM, Ford, Toyota top Wall Street forecasts
* Chrysler, Honda, Nissan fall short of analysts' estimates
* Overall sales in line with Street view
By Deepa Seetharaman and Ben Klayman
DETROIT, Feb 1 U.S. auto sales rose 14 percent
in January, kicking off the industry's fourth straight year of
recovery since the depths of recession as American consumers
increasingly sought to replace their aging cars and trucks.
January was the third straight month that the annual U.S.
auto sales rate held above the 15 million mark, with a 15.3
million pace last month, according to industry research firm
The results indicate the industry's gains will continue to
outpace the broader U.S. economic recovery in 2013. So-called
"pent-up demand" for new vehicles, the improving U.S. housing
market and lower interest rates will boost new vehicle sales
this year, industry executives and analysts said.
"We all started the year with a little bit of apprehension
with the fiscal cliff debates and the new tax rates," said
Toyota Motor Corp's Bill Fay, head of U.S. sales for
the Toyota brand. "Our industry again emerged as one of the
strong points for the economy."
Overall sales were in line with Wall Street expectations,
although individual companies' performances varied. Toyota,
General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co shot past
expectations, while other companies, including Honda Motor Co
, fell far short.
While the current pace was below pre-recession U.S. sales
volume, it is much higher than the 10.4 million new vehicles
sold in the United States in 2009. That year marked the lowest
sales level since the early 1980s and pushed GM and Chrysler
Group LLC into bankruptcy.
"It says to us that we continue to recover strongly from the
recession despite the headwinds of higher taxes and lower
government spending," Kurt McNeil, GM's head of U.S. sales
operations, said on a conference call on January's results.
The industry could grow as much as 7 percent in 2013, GM
predicted. Ford forecast a gain of as much as 8 percent, triple
the 2 to 2.5 percent growth it sees for the overall economy.
PICKUP TRUCKS SHINE
Pickup trucks in particular outpaced the broader market last
month, helped by improvements in the U.S. housing sector and
purchases by small businesses, including bakeries, caterers and
plumbers, GM executives said.
The average car on the road is more than 11 years old,
according to automotive consulting firm Polk, after U.S.
consumers delayed new vehicle purchases during the recession and
the early days of the economic recovery.
"Truck buyers delayed their purchases longer than any other
segment," TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak said. "The biggest
driver of truck sales is the housing market. Business owners are
now feeling more positive about the prospects of the economy."
GM said purchases of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra
full-size pickup trucks jumped by about one-third for each
model. Ford's F-Series truck sales were up 22 percent, while
Chrysler's Ram pickup trucks were up 14 percent. Pickup trucks
generate some of the strongest profits for automakers.
GM, the largest U.S. automaker by sales, said incentives on
its current trucks were higher compared with a year ago. GM will
launch its redesigned lineup of trucks in the second quarter.
OUTPACING THE INDUSTRY
U.S. auto sales in 2012 rose more than 13 percent to 14.5
million cars and trucks, and GM has forecast an increase to
between 15 million and 15.5 million for 2013.
U.S. auto sales are among the early indicators of economic
health each month. U.S. employment grew modestly in January and
gains in the prior two months were bigger than initially
reported, despite the unexpected contraction in economic output
during the last three months of 2012.
GM posted a 16 percent year-on-year increase, while its
smaller rival Ford logged a 22 percent jump. Japan's Toyota was
up nearly 27 percent. The three automakers, which account for
nearly half the U.S. market, beat Wall Street forecasts.
But others, including Chrysler, fell short of estimates. The
No. 3 U.S. automaker, majority owned by Italy's Fiat SpA
, posted a 16 percent gain. Nissan Motor Co's sales
increased by 2 percent, and Honda's 12.8 percent rise
came in below the more than 20-percent gain projected by
Sales of cars and crossovers, such as the recently launched
Ford Fusion mid-size sedan and the Chevy Equinox mid-size
crossover, also helped boost the industry last month.
But sales for Ford's Lincoln luxury brand fell 18 percent,
hurt by inventory shortages of its newly launched MKZ sedan.
Ford said it was holding back those sedans to complete more
rigorous quality checks. MKZ inventory should be at planned
levels by April, Ford U.S. sales executive Ken Czubay said,
adding that the checks were "paramount" to relaunching the