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

General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co , the two largest U.S. automakers, reported better-than-expected January auto sales, buoyed by a strong showing in small cars and crossovers.

GM forecast the auto industry's annual sales rate for the month would be 15.3 million vehicles, about in line with the 15.2 million rate expected by analysts polled by Thomson Reuters.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker, posted a 16 percent increase in sales, boosted by higher sales of its Chevrolet Equinox mid-size crossover and a nearly one-third jump for the Silverado pickup truck.

Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, posted a 22 percent jump in sales, helped by the Fusion mid-size sedan that it launched last year.

U.S. auto sales are expected to continue the strong pace set at the end of last year, with industry sales rising as much as 15 percent due to an improving housing market and pent-up demand for cars and trucks.

Chrysler Group LLC, the third-largest U.S. automaker, projected an industry annual sales rate in January of 15.5 million vehicles, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks that typically account for around 300,000 sales a year.

Chrysler, majority-owned by Italian automaker Fiat SpA , posted January car sales of 117,731, up 16 percent for 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 David Holmes and John Wallace)