Chrysler, VW fuel strong start to U.S. car sales in January

The Chrysler Group and the Volkswagen Group got 2012 off to a fast start in sales, while General Motors saw things cool off at all four of its brands.

Automakers sold about 913,000 new cars and trucks in January, up 11 percent from January 2011. January is typically the slowest sales month of the year for the auto industry. The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate for January hit 14.2 million–far above estimates and the highest rate since August 2009, when the government’s cash-for-clunkers program drove demand.

Chrysler credited a revamped lineup for its 44 percent increase, with the Chrysler nameplate leading the pack. The brand is up 81 percent over last January. Jeep and Ram are both up about 40 percent, while Dodge is up 29 percent. The Ram pickup was a sales star as the Ram brand moved 18,000 vehicles for the month, a 47 percent increase over last year. For those of you keeping track, 1,911 Fiat 500s sold.

Ford Motor Co. saw a 7 percent increase over last year’s January sales, driven by strong sales of the Ford Focus, Escape and Explorer. The Focus came in with the biggest increase in sales, 60 percent higher than last year. More than 14,000 Focus cars found new homes–it’s the best January for the car since 2003. The Escape SUV–due to be replaced this spring by a new model–posted big gains, topping last January’s figure by 24 percent. The Focus and the Escape made up 49 percent of the company’s growth last month. Sales of the Explorer grew 36 percent.

Sales for GM overall dropped 6 percent in January. Cadillac lost the most ground with a 29 percent decrease from last year–it was outsold by VW’s Audi division for the month. Buick posted a 23 percent decline. Total Chevrolet sales were down 1 percent, but passenger-car sales were up, led by the Sonic and the Cruze.

GM said it expects to strengthen its position in 2012. The company will launch the Cadillac XTS sedan in late spring, and the new ATS will hit showrooms in late summer. Near the end of the year, Buick will launch the small Encore crossover, based on the Sonic platform.

The Volkswagen brand’s strong January–up 48 percent–was helped by growing sales of the U.S.-built Passatsedan. Mercedes-Benz, which just lost out to BMW for the 2011 luxury-brand sales crown, posted a 23 percent gain in January. BMW brand sales rose 3 percent.

January also brought good news for Toyota and Honda–two automakers hobbled for most of 2011 in the wake of the Japan earthquake and tsunami in March. The January increase for combined sales of Honda and Acura vehicles was Honda Motor Co.’s first sales gain since April. Strong sales at the Toyota brand offset a 5 percent decline in Lexus sales for the month.

Hyundai Motor America–the combined Hyundai and Kia brands–set a January sales record, up 15 percent from 2011. It also marked the 17th straight monthly gain for Kia in the U.S. market.

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