Major automakers reported a nearly 12 percent gain in U.S. sales in January, a surprisingly strong showing driven by the growing need for American drivers to replace aging cars and trucks.

Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> said the annualized sales rate in January could be around 14 million vehicles, the best start of the year for the industry since 2008, before the financial crisis.

Separately, JP Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel said January, normally a tepid month for auto sales, is on track for an annualized sales rate of 13.8 million vehicles. Most analysts had expected a rate of 13.5 million in January.

Should those projections hold, January would be the best month for the industry since August 2009 when the U.S. government was running the cash for clunkers trade-in incentive program and the sales rate was 14.1 million.

Normally you have a little bit of the December hangover, Al Castignetti, head of U.S. sales for Nissan brand, said.

We generally bleed a lot of January sales into December and then January starts out very slow and you try to make the month in the last 10 days, he added. The absolute opposite happened this year.

Toyota U.S. sales chief Bob Carter said the momentum from the 2011 fourth quarter sped up in January.

Higher used-car prices and the rising age of vehicles on the road boosted new-car sales. The average vehicle on U.S. roads is almost 11 years old - a record - and owners are now trading in older vehicles they kept during the economic downturn.

Stable gasoline prices have also helped spur sales, Ford Motor Co economist Jenny Lin said, adding that the Federal Reserve's promise to keep interest rates low through late 2014 will also support vehicle sales in the future.

Auto sales rose even as automakers refrained from the generous consumer incentives that were the mainstay of U.S. automakers' sales strategy before the wrenching restructuring in 2009. Last January, General Motors Co offered incentives to jump-start sales, but it has since pulled back from this approach.

The old days of going blindly after market share are over, and most manufacturers are now concentrating on what really matters, which is profitability, said Jesse Toprak, analyst.


U.S. auto sales, an early snapshot of consumer demand each month, have been a bright spot for the economy, which is in the midst of a slow recovery.

In 2011, light vehicle sales rose 10.3 percent to 12.8 million and in December the sales rate was nearly 13.6 million.

Chrysler Group LLC posted a 44 percent rise in U.S. auto sales in January, led by gains for its Jeep brand. Volkswagen of America rose 48 percent to 27,209 vehicles, buoyed by the introduction of its Passat sedan.

Chrysler's sales blew past some analysts' expectations of a 35 percent increase. The No. 3 U.S. automaker also swung to a profit with full-year 2011 net income of $183 million.

Chrysler, now managed by Italy's Fiat SpA , ranked No. 4 in U.S. auto sales last year, behind leader GM, Ford and Toyota.

GM predicted that light vehicle sales in 2012 would be between 13.5 million and 14 million. Volkswagen projected 13.7 million sales. Toyota predicted a 13.6 million sales rate.

Ford expects full-year sales will wind up between 13.5 million and 14.5 million, including medium and heavy trucks. Medium and heavy trucks typically account for annual sales of 300,000.

Toyota sales rose 7.5 percent to 124,540 in January. Nissan sales in the United States rose 10.4 percent to 79,313.

GM sales totaled 167,962 vehicles in January, a 6 percent decline. GM was expected to show a decline of about 9 percent from last January.

Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, reported a 7.4 percent increase in auto sales for the month, spurred by a 60 percent jump in Focus small car sales. Some analysts expected Ford to report a monthly sales increase of up to 9 percent.

GM shares were up 1.6 percent at $24.40 and Ford shares were down 0.2 percent at $12.40 on Wednesday afternoon.

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