US auto sales extend strong gains in January

US consumers flooded car dealerships in January, pushing sales up 14 percent and extending months of solid growth as the industry recovers from a deep downturn, automakers said Friday.

Toyota led the pack with a 27 percent jump to 157,725 vehicles, as General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and Honda posted double digit growth.

"Our industry, I think, emerged as one of the strong points for the economy," said Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota Motor Sales USA.

"We're very encouraged that the sales pace we saw in the fourth quarter rolled right into January, exceeding our expectations for our industry and resulting in a great start for the year for Toyota."

The industry sales pace came in at a seasonally adjusted, annualized rate of 15.29 million vehicles. That's down modestly from the 15.37 million rate posted in December but up sharply from 13.98 million in January 2012, according to Autodata.

Total industry deliveries increased 14 percent from last January to 1.04 million vehicles, it said.

Toyota's share of the US market rose 1.5 points from a January 2012 to 15.1 percent.

"We expect the stability in the economy and pent up demand and our great new products and value to continue to carry us to success in February and beyond," Fay said during a conference call.

Ford maintained its position as the second largest automaker as its sales rose 22 percent to 166,501 vehicles, its best January since 2006. Its share grew by a full point to 15.9 percent, according to Autodata.

"Ford is off to a strong start this year, " sales chief Ken Czubay said.

"Our investment in fuel-efficient new vehicles -- including EcoBoost engines and hybrid technology -- continues to pay off."

The "biggest driver" of growth this year is going to be demand to replace vehicles after the average age of cars on the road rose to 11 years as millions of people put off purchases in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Czubay said.

Drastic improvements in fuel economy in recent years and historically low interest rates are also drawing consumers by lowering the total cost of ownership on a new car, he said in a conference call.

Chrysler posted its 34th consecutive month of gains as US sales rose 16 percent to 101,149 vehicles, the company's best January since 2008. Its share grew 0.1 points to 11 percent.

"It's been a good week for the Chrysler Group," sales chief Reid Bigland said.

"On Wednesday we announced full year 2012 profits of $1.7 billion and followed that today with our January sales up 16 percent."

Meanwhile, GM's US sales rose 16 percent from a year ago to 194,699 vehicles, its best January since 2008. Its share grew 0.3 points to 18.7 percent of the US market.

"The year is off to a very good start for General Motors," sales chief Kurt McNeil said. "There's a sense of optimism among our dealers that only comes when you pair a growing economy with great new products."

Honda's sales rose 13 percent to 93,626 vehicles but its share shrank by 0.1 points to nine percent.

"With our strongest vehicle lineup ever and continued sales momentum, we're optimistic 2013 will be a great year for the Honda brand," sales chief John Mendel said in a statement.

Nissan's sales grew just two percent to 80,919 vehicles as its share shrank by nearly a full point to 7.8 percent, according to Autodata.