U.S. auto sales jumped 11 percent in January, led by huge gains at Chrysler Group and Volkswagen of America. Best January since 2008

U.S. auto sales jumped 11 percent in January, led by huge gains at Chrysler Group and Volkswagen of America.Automakers sold 913,284 light vehicles for the month, the best January since 2008. The seasonally adjusted annual selling rate was 14.2 million, which matches the cash-for-clunkers selling rate of August 2009.

Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter said January had “a very healthy” sales pace.

“It’s significant to see 913,000 in January when much of the country typically is in a deep freeze,” he said. “We’re bullish with where the industry is going.”

Most major companies gain

Among the highlights:

— All major players posted sales gains except General Motors, which fell 6 percent from a strong January 2011 that had been buoyed by strong incentives.

— All four GM brands lost ground: Chevrolet was down 1 percent, GMC lost 10 percent, Buick 23 percent and Cadillac 29 percent.

— Chrysler Group volume jumped 44 percent to 101,149 units. The growth was led by Chrysler brand, up 81 percent.

— Hyundai-Kia Automotive gained 20 percent overall: Kia rose 28 percent and Hyundai 15 percent.

— Nissan North America sales increased 10 percent, just under the industry average overall. But after being passed by Hyundai-Kia for the No. 6 U.S. sales position, Nissan’s 79,313 light-vehicle sales gave it a 1,102-unit lead over its South Korean rival to start the year.

— American Honda gained 9 percent in January, its first year-over-year increase since April and a sign that its restocking efforts since the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan and flooding later in the year in Thailand are working.

— Toyota Motor Sales, which also had been slammed by the natural disasters last year, boosted sales 8 percent to 124,540 units. Toyota brand rose 9 percent, offsetting a 5 percent decline at Lexus.

— Ford Motor Co. increased sales 7 percent in January, with Ford division up 8 percent and Lincoln down 8 percent.

Mazda, Subaru sales rise

— Among the smaller players, Volkswagen Group sales soared 40 percent to 36,681 units, led by a 48 percent increase for the VW brand and 20 percent higher sales at Audi.

— Mazda posted an even bigger gain, up 68 percent to 23,996 vehicles.

— Subaru volume rose 21 percent, its second month of growth after a seven-month stretch of declines as it struggled to restock U.S. dealer lots after the natural disasters of last year.

— Daimler AG gained 23 percent, with 23 percent growth at Mercedes-Benz and 39 percent at Smart.

— BMW group sales rose 6 percent overall, with a 21 percent increase at Mini pumping up a more modest 3 percent gain at BMW brand.

— Other European premium brands posted increases: 31 percent for Jaguar Land Rover, 6 percent for Porsche and 4 percent for Volvo.

— Only two small Japanese automakers posted sales declines in January. Mitsubishi’s volume fell 18 percent while Suzuki tumbled 41 percent to 1,505 units.

Odds and ends

— Tough sledding for luxury: A few luxury brands outperformed the industry’s 11 percent rise in January. Land Rover jumped 41 percent, Mercedes-Benz gained 23 percent and Audi 20 percent. But Jaguar, Porsche, Acura and BMW eked out modest unit increases below the industry average. And Lexus fell 5 percent, Lincoln and Infiniti each lost 8 percent, and Cadillac tumbled 29 percent.

— The industry’s shift to greater North American production continues. U.S. sales of vehicles made in the United States, Canada and Mexico were 77.9 percent of total industry volume, up from 76.7 percent last January.

— Oddity: Audi outsold Cadillac in January, 9,354 units to 8,924. Until Cadillac can get its new XTS and ATS sedans into showrooms, it is limited to essentially three models: the CTS sedan and SRX and Escalade SUVs.

— Best-seller surprises: Compared to the 10 best-selling nameplates for 2011, January’s top 10 list has three new names. The Honda Accord and Ford Fusion dropped out, but Honda added the Civic and CR-V. And the Chevrolet Cruze got bumped by its big brother, the Chevy Impala.

— Guess who’s No. 2? One other Top 10 shakeup: The new-generation Toyota Camry, introduced in September, outsold the Chevy Silverado pickup, ousting it from its perennial No. 2 sales position behind the Ford F-series.

— Trucks bucked: January also changed the list of 2011 best-selling trucks. Out: 2011’s No. 7 GMC Sierra and No. 10 Kia Sorento. In: the Jeep Grand Cherokee at No. 7 and Nissan Rogue at No. 9.

— Cars rule in January: Cars outsold light trucks last month, 474,449 to 438,835, a 51.9/49.1 split. A year ago trucks ruled, 413,962 to 405,924, a 50.5/49.5 split.

Watch those comparables

It’s time to readjust expectations based on the most common industry sales measurement: comparing sales to performance the year before.

— Hyundai-Kia and Chrysler are coming off 2011 performances up more than a quarter, so it will take huge months for them to move the needle much this year.

— Both Toyota group and American Honda sales fell 7 percent in 2011, so posting even modest increases will look good this year.

— Sales comparisons also will be easier for Ford and GM this year because the drag of those dead or sold brands has washed out of year-ago numbers. For GM, no more year-ago sales of Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer or Saab models. Ford has no Volvos and only a wisp of Mercury sales on the 2011 blotter.

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