Auto Makers Reveal Upbeat Kickoff to 2011

In an encouraging start to 2011, U.S. auto makers General Motors (NYSE:GM), Ford (NYSE:F) and Chrysler all reported double-digit year-over-year sales increases in January as Detroit continues to rebound from the economic downturn.

The up tick in sales underscore Americans' growing willingness to make big-ticket purchases amid the improving economic recovery.

GM, which enjoyed a successful initial public offering last year, said sales of its core brands leaped by 23% in January to 178,896 vehicles. Fleet sales declined 7%, led by an 11% slide for rental fleet sales. Commercial customer sales rose 7%.

“January was a good month and signaled a solid start to the new year for each of our divisions,” Don Johnson, vice president of GM’s U.S. sales operations, said in a statement. “Our results were driven by gains across the board in all segments, with our newest models leading the way.”

Customers scooped up GM’s crossover vehicles, which saw a 31% annual rise in sales last month. Out of GM’s four brands, Cadillac outperformed its peers, with sales surging 49% from the January 2010. Buick’s sales soared 32%, while GMC’s sales were up 30%. Chevrolet sales climbed 19%.

Toyota (NYSE:TM) also released its January results, saying its U.S. sales rose 17% last month despite a 17% decline in its Lexus luxury brand sales.

Ford, the only major U.S. auto maker that didn't file for bankruptcy during the recession, said its January sales increased 13% from a year earlier to 127,317 vehicles. Ford's retail sales soared 27% from 2010 -- the largest increase in more than a decade.

“We begin 2011 in a strong position – ready to meet the needs of a wide range of customers with a full portfolio of high-quality, fuel-efficient vehicles,” Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service, said in a statement.

Ford said its car retail sales climbed 35% last month, compared with rises of 22% for utilities and 24% for trucks. The auto maker's F-Series truck notched a 30% sales leap. Sales of the newly-redesigned Explorer SUV surged 73% in January.

Chrysler, which has not yet returned to the Big Board, posted a 23% rise in January U.S. sales to 70,118 vehicles. That marked the 10th consecutive month of year-over-year sales increases.

"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," Fred Diaz, lead executive for U.S. sales, said in a statement.

Chrysler said its Jeep, Dodge and Ram truck brands all posted double-digit sales gains. Jeep brand sales surged 47% in January from a year earlier, while Dodge sales climbed 22% and Ram truck sales were up 18%.

Shares of GM and Ford were on the rise Tuesday afternoon, though both underperformed the broader markets. GM gained 0.63% to $36.72, while Ford jumped 1.16% to $16.14.

Toyota's U.S.-listed shares rose 1.06% to $83.05.