General Motors Co and Chrysler posted U.S. sales gains of more than 20 percent for January as the two automakers that had faced collapse in 2009 shot past the industry's still-struggling leader, Toyota Motor Corp.
Overall U.S. auto sales rose 17 percent, a sign that the consumer-led recovery remained on track in the United States as well as in Europe and Asia, where car makers also reported a strong start to 2011 on Tuesday. (ID:nTOE710055]
Strong truck sales drove GM to a 22 percent U.S. sales gain, pushing its market share higher for the first time in six months.
Chrysler, which is laying the groundwork for an initial public offering of stock this year, saw sales rise 23 percent.
By contrast, Toyota only kept pace with the market at 17 percent, a disappointing result that showed the pressure on the top global automaker a year after a punishing series of safety recalls that tarnished its reputation.
The industry-wide sales gain for January came despite a series of winter storms that some analysts had suggested could push planned purchases into February or beyond.
Even though January sales were solid, analysts cautioned that higher oil prices could crimp demand or send consumers scrambling toward the smaller vehicles that remain less profitable for automakers, especially the Detroit Three.
We're still not at the oil prices that would tilt the industry, said Paul Ballew, chief economist at the insurer, Nationwide. If oil prices don't trip us up, Detroit should have a pretty good year.
Other major automakers also posted double-digit sales gains. Honda Motor Co and Nissan Motor Co were up 15 percent. Ford Motor Co gained 13 percent.
GM's results were boosted by a jump in sales of pickup trucks and SUVs, the heavy vehicles that remain the automaker's most profitable offerings.
But GM's sales gain also came as it stepped up spending on incentives to lure consumers.
The automaker vowed that it would not return to its much-criticized practice of buying market share with zero-percent financing and other discounts. But in a departure from recent practice, GM declined to specify how much it had spent on sales incentives in the past month.
We're not going to return to the days of driving production with incentives, GM's sales chief, Don Johnson, told reporters and analysts. We know that's not going to be a recipe for success for us.
Both GM and Ford reported strong sales of pickup trucks that outstripped gains for the market as a whole. Pickup trucks are often used by small-business owners, and analysts track that category of demand as a leading indicator for business investment.
Sales for Ford's F-Series trucks jumped 30 percent. Sales for GM's Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra rose by a combined 29 percent.
Analysts had expected Toyota to show a bigger year-on-year gain after a massive recall a year ago cut its market share sharply.
Toyota said on Tuesday it would launch a new round of sales incentives and took steps to cut costs in its U.S. operations -- the kinds of steps Toyota's U.S. rivals had been forced to take before last year's reversal of fortune for the Japanese automaker.
Toyota said it would offer zero-percent and low-interest rate financing for some models backed by a new marketing campaign around the slogan No. 1 for a Reason through March.
At the same time, Toyota sent an unprecedented notice to managers at its U.S. sales headquarters in California offering buyouts to leave the payroll by April.
Toyota was the only major automaker that lost sales in the United States in 2010. Its buyout marked the first time it had moved to cut U.S. sales staff since it set up operations in that market in the late 1950s, a spokesman said.
Toyota's long-term outlook has been dimmed a bit, said IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland. It's not glowing as brightly.
BAD WEATHER, GOOD SALES
January's bad weather included a particularly strong winter storm in the middle of the month that caused six U.S. states to declare emergencies.
Nissan's U.S. sales chief, Al Castignetti, said the harsh weather had caused consumers to defer purchases, especially in the Northeast, typically a strong area of sales for Nissan.
We lost a lot of our ability to sell cars as a result of that, Castignetti said.
Industry-wide U.S. sales rose 17 percent in January, according to Autodata Corp. On the adjusted and annualized basis tracked by analysts, the sales rate was 12.6 million vehicles, stronger than some analysts had expected after sales appeared to lose momentum in the final weeks of the month.
The U.S. auto sales figures for January, one of the first snapshots of consumer demand, came as a survey found that the U.S. manufacturing sector grew at its fastest pace in nearly seven years during the month.
(Additional reporting by Helen Massy-Beresford and Gilles Guillaume in Paris, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul, Sumeet Chatterjee in Mumbai; writing by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Gary Hill and Carol Bishopric)