GM, Ford post stronger-than-expected auto sales for January

General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co , the two largest American automakers, on Friday posted better-than-expected U.S. auto sales for January after a strong showing in cars, crossovers and pickup trucks.

Japan's Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> sold 157,725 vehicles in the United States last month, up nearly 27 percent from a year earlier and better than most analysts expected.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker by sales, posted a 16 percent increase as purchases of its Chevrolet Equinox mid-size crossover leapt 26 percent, while those of its Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks jumped by about one-third.

Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, posted a 22 percent jump, helped by the Fusion mid-size sedan introduced last year. Sales for Ford's luxury brand Lincoln fell 18 percent, hurt by inventory shortages of its newly launched MKZ sedan.

Ford said it was holding back those sedans to complete more-rigorous quality checks. MKZ inventory is expected to be at planned levels by April, Ford U.S. sales executive Ken Czubay said, adding that these checks were "paramount" to relaunching the brand.

U.S. auto sales in 2012 rose more than 13 percent to 14.5 million cars and trucks, and GM forecast an increase to between 15 million and 15.5 million for 2013. This year's performance is expected to continue the strong pace set at the end of 2012.

The biggest driver of vehicle sales this year will continue to be pent-up demand from American consumers as their aging vehicles push past the point of repair, Czubay said during a conference call with analysts and reporters.

The average car on the road is more than 11 years old, according to automotive consulting firm Polk. A recovery in the U.S. housing sector and lower interest rates will boost auto sales this year, Ford executives and analysts said.

GM predicted the annual sales rate for January would hover around 15.3 million vehicles, while Ford said the rate would be in the mid-15 million range, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks, which usually add 300,000 sales to the rate.

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect a 15.2 million sales rate for January.

Chrysler Group LLC, the third-largest U.S. automaker, projected for the industry an annual sales rate in January of 15.5 million vehicles, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

Chrysler, majority-owned by Italian automaker Fiat SpA , posted January U.S. car sales of 117,731, up 16 percent from a year earlier. The sales were its best since 2008 but fell short of several analyst estimates.

Jeep sales were down 4 percent, as Chrysler phases out the Liberty model and prepares to launch its successor later this year. Sales of the Fiat 500 jumped 31 percent to 2,503, while the Dodge Dart hit 7,154, the highest level since the car's introduction last June.

(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman, Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert; Editing by Dale Hudson, David Holmes and John Wallace)