U.S. January auto sales stronger than expected

DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. auto sales fared better than expected in January as the industry continued to benefit from low gasoline prices, easy credit and moderate economic growth, major automakers said on Tuesday.

Sales were down 0.3 percent at 1.15 million vehicles, Autodata Corp said, better than the expected decline of between 0.5 percent to 5 percent forecast by analysts polled by Reuters before Tuesday.

January U.S. sales were 17.58 million on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis, Autodata said. WardsAuto, which the U.S. government uses for economic analysis, said the annualized rate was 17.46 million and that monthly sales fell 0.4 percent from a year ago.

The same trends that boosted sales in 2015 helped blunt the challenges of two fewer selling days and a massive East Coast snowstorm.

General Motors Co GM.N, the top-seller in the U.S. market, said its sales were up 0.5 percent, while it increased its share of the retail market, which does not include fleet sales to rental agencies.

Ford Motor Co's F.N sales fell 2.6 percent.

Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T, No. 3 in the U.S. market, showed sales down 4.7 percent.

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Results of all of the 10 top-selling automakers in the U.S. market except for Volkswagen AG VOWG_p.DE topped expectations of forecasters.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles FCHA.MIFCAU.N showed sales up 7 percent. Honda Motor Co 7267.T sales fell 1.7 percent, and Nissan Motor Co 7201.T reported sales up 1.6 percent. Hyundai Motor Co 005380.KS sales rose 1 percent.

The month shows a strong start of what is expected to be a second straight record year.

Still, auto company shares remain pressured as many Wall Street investors say the cyclical industry will soon plateau, ahead of a decline in several years.

Ford reported sales of its F-series pickup trucks were down 5 percent, and its shares fell nearly 5 percent. Fiat Chrysler shares traded in New York were down 4.1 percent on Tuesday afternoon and GM shares were down 2.1 percent. The wider S&P 500 index was down 2.1 percent.

WardsAuto said U.S. sales hit a record 17.39 million vehicles in 2015. Some forecasters say 2016 sales will reach 18 million vehicles.

Sales of GM’s Chevy Silverado and Fiat Chrysler’s Ram both rose 5 percent. Each truck is its manufacturer’s best-selling model for the U.S. market.

Volkswagen AG VOWG_p.DE VW brand sales fell 14.6 percent as it continues to be affected by its diesel emissions scandal. Volkswagen AG sales including the VW, Audi and Porsche brands fell 7 percent.

Reporting by Bernie Woodall; editing by Tom Brown and Chizu Nomiyama