LOS ANGELES — Automakers are off to a good start this year.
"More people (are) purchasing vehicles because they want to buy them rather than because they need to buy them," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.com. "That's great news for the industry's continued recovery."
General Motors Co. said Tuesday that its January sales in the U.S. rose 22 percent to 178,896 vehicles.
"January signaled a good start to the year for us, the industry and the U.S. economy," said Don Johnson, vice president, U.S. sales operations.
Consumers have returned to showrooms. The industry's sales to fleets and commercial users were lower than a year ago. GM's retail sales were up 36 percent, while its fleet sales were down for the month because of reduced purchases by car-rental companies.
Ford Motor Co. said its sales rose 13 percent to 127,317 vehicles. It also had a big retail month, with showroom sales up 27 percent compared with the same period a year earlier. Ford's sales were up despite the discontinuation of its Mercury brand at year's end. Mercury sold almost 5,500 vehicles a year ago.
Chrysler Group said its sales rose 23 percent to 70,118. The automaker sold 7,612 of its new-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee in January, a 130 percent increase in sales from a year earlier for the Jeep it replaced.
"We have started the year on a strong note, and we intend to continue gaining sales momentum as our new 2011 models hit dealer showrooms during this first quarter," said Fred Diaz, Chrysler's U.S. sales chief.
Nissan North America said its sales rose 15 percent to 71,847.
Based on preliminary data, analysts estimated that the auto industry sold cars at an annual rate of about 12 million to 12.5 million in January. The industry sold about 11.6 million vehicles in 2010.
Still, there are concerns. The continued depressed housing market and the lack of job growth are keeping auto sales low compared with pre-recession levels, said George Pipas, sales analyst for Ford Motor Co.
And the sales pace slowed during the second half of the month, said Jeff Schuster, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates.
"It could be several different things," Schuster said. "There have been a lot of storms in different parts of the country. Could also be because we had such a strong December."
Most of the automakers also pulled back on what they spent on marketing and promotions. The sales incentives offered by the companies fell on average by about 12 percent, about $300, from December, he said.
GM was one exception to that trend, which could explain its robust sales, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com.
"General Motors' incentive spend in January certainly raises some eyebrows," Caldwell said. "GM spent more on incentives in January than any of their Big 6 rivals, even as they sold more 2011 model-year vehicles. This suggests that their new model-year vehicles are more heavily discounted than one might expect."