Chrysler Group LLC posted a 44 percent rise in U.S. auto sales in January, led by gains for its Jeep brand, while its larger domestic rival General Motors Co lost ground in a month marked by modest growth.

Chrysler's sales blew past some analysts' expectations of a 35 percent increase, demonstrating the unlikely comeback of the smallest U.S. automaker nearly three years after its taxpayer-funded bankruptcy restructuring.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker, reported a 6 percent drop in U.S. auto sales in January, while Ford Motor Co posted sales that were 7 percent higher, spurred by a 60 percent jump in sales of the Focus small car.

So far, the annualized sales rate for January is tracking at 13.7 million vehicles, JP Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel wrote in a research note. Patel and other analysts had predicted a 13.5 million sales rate for the month.

GM was expected to show a decline from last January, when the automaker offered consumer incentives to jump-start sales. GM sales totaled 167,962 vehicles in January. Some analysts had expected GM to report a 9 percent drop.

In 2012, we will strengthen our position with more new products, an even better dealership experience and reinforce the disciplined 'go to market' strategy that helped us grow profitably in the United States in 2011, GM U.S. sales chief Don Johnson said in a statement.

GM predicted that light vehicle sales in 2012 would range from 13.5 million to 14 million. Volkswagen of America projected 13.7 million sales in 2012.

U.S. auto sales, an early indication of consumer demand each month, are expected to show a 6 percent rise in January. Older cars, which now average a record 11 years old, are helping to boost new car sales as people trade them in after delaying purchases during the economic downturn.

Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, sold 136,710 cars and trucks in January. Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold predicted an 8.1 percent increase for Ford, while expected a 9 percent gain.

VW and Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> reported gains as well. VW sales rose 48 percent to 27,209 vehicles, buoyed by the introduction of its Passat sedan. Nissan sales in the United States rose 10.4 percent to 79,313.

During a call with reporters, Jonathan Browning, chief executive of VW in America, said U.S. consumer confidence was growing, but not a swift rate.

Chrysler reported its first full-year profit since 1997 on Wednesday. Chrysler in 2011 was No. 4 in U.S. auto sales, behind leader GM, Ford and Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>.

GM shares were up 1 percent at $24.25 and Ford shares were up 0.2 percent at $12.44 on Wednesday morning on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall, Ben Klayman and Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Maureen Bavdek and Matthew Lewis)