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

Ford Motor Co , 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 sales of the Focus small car. GM sales totaled 167,962 vehicles in January, a 6 percent decline.

So far, the annualized sales rate for January, traditionally a tepid month for auto sales, is tracking at 13.8 million vehicles, JP Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel said in a research note. This surpasses the 13.5 million sales rate that analysts had expected and is slightly higher than the nearly 13.6 million sales rate reached in December.

The sales rate 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, GM offered incentives to jump-start sales, but GM 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.

The average vehicle on U.S. roads is now 11 years old - a record - and that is helping boost new-car sales as owners trade in the old vehicles that they had hung on to during the economic downturn. Ford economist Jenny Lin said low interest rates as well as stable gasoline prices were supporting vehicle sales.

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.

GM predicted that light vehicle sales in 2012 would be between 13.5 million and 14 million. Volkswagen of America projected 13.7 million sales.

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.


Some analysts expected Ford to report a monthly sales increase of up to 9 percent. Chrysler's sales blew past some analysts' expectations of a 35 percent increase. GM was expected to show a decline of about 9 percent from last January.

GM's sales to consumers fell 15.4 percent for the month.

Sales strength in the month seems to have been driven by strong fleet sales, as retail sales were mentioned to be down, Patel said in a note. Fleet customers include rental agencies.

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 at a swift rate.

Ford 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.

Chrysler reported its first full-year profit since 1997 on Wednesday. [ID:nL5E8D13AW] [ID:nL5E8D1190] 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 1.9 percent at $24.48 and Ford shares were down 0.8 percent at $12.32 on Wednesday afternoon.

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