"We started the new year with a bang," Reid Bigland, head of the Dodge brand and U.S. sales at Chrysler, said in a statement.
Jeep brand sales increased 37 percent in January, Chrysler said, with all five Jeep models posting double-digit sales gains. Ram pickup sales climbed 47 percent last month, while Dodge deliveries increased 29 percent.
Ford said its U.S. sales for the month increased 7 percent to 136,701 vehicles. Sales of the Ford Focus drove 30 percent of the increase, the automaker said in a statement.
Sales were up 8 percent at the Ford division, but declined 8 percent at Lincoln. Demand for the Focus, helped by fatter discounts, surged 60 percent to 14,400 in January, Ford said.
"January started off with solid sales versus year-ago levels," Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said in a statement. "Ford saw the same solid month, with smaller vehicles in higher demand. Escape continued its record-setting run, and Focus set the pace for car sales in California, Texas and the Southeast."
Nissan said its January sales rose 10.4 percent to 79,313 units. Nissan brand sales climbed 13 percent to 72,517, but Infiniti brand sales fell 8 percent to 6,796.
Mazda said heavy holiday advertising helped its U.S. dealers sell 23,996 vehicles last month, up 68 percent from January 2011 and the brand's best January sales since 1994.
J.D. Power and Associates estimated fleet sales increased 9 percent to 188,600 units compared to January 2011, and accounted for 22 percent of industry volume during the month.
The gradual rebound in the U.S. economy, a more favorable credit environment, healthy light vehicle stockpiles and pent-up demand are expected to provide another lift to new car and truck demand this year.
"Some people are starting to feel comfortable enough in the economy that they are willing to buy a car," said Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics Inc., an automotive consulting firm in Birmingham, Mich. "Others are saying, 'I've got to replace this old car because it's nickel and diming me to death.'"
U.S. car and light truck sales totaled 12.78 million units last year, up 10 percent from 2010. Sales for 2012 are forecast to hit 13.6 million, up 7 percent from last year, based on a survey of 11 analysts by Automotive News.
Some automakers see U.S. sales topping 14 million units this year as more consumers replace aging cars and light trucks.
"Retail light-vehicle sales in January are showing stability coming off the 2011 high note in December," John Humphrey, head of global automotive operations at J.D. Power and Associates, said in a statement last week.
"Vehicles are currently remaining on dealer lots for fewer than 50 days on average, which is the lowest level for January for the past several years," Humphrey said. "This is a good indication that pent-up demand is beginning to return to the market."
The average age of cars and trucks in the United States reached a record 10.8 years as of July 1, 2011, R.L. Polk & Co. reported last month. That's up from 10.6 years in 2010, and continues a trend that started in 1995, when the average age of a car was 8.4 years, according to Polk, which tracks state vehicle registrations.
Economic jitters, weak employment growth, high consumer debt, and stagnant household income have kept many people from making big-ticket purchases.
Dealers watch discounts
Mike Sullivan, a dealer in Santa Monica, Calif., said his 11 stores in the Los Angeles area had a solid year in 2011, despite inventory shortages, with profits "up again."
He's encouraged that some negative macroeconomic factors -- such as the Southern California housing market -- have stabilized.
"No one is talking like the sky is falling anymore," said Sullivan, who operates Volkswagen, Toyota, Audi, Scion, Lexus, Porsche, Subaru and Fisker franchises.
But he worries that manufacturers may over produce this year, adding pressure to boost rebates.
"Some automakers are planning for a big year, and I see some risk we may be getting ahead of ourselves," Sullivan said. "But it's not keeping me awake at night."
Autodata estimated average discounts dropped 10 percent per vehicle last month compared to $2,675 in December, when most automakers offered year-end and holiday deals.
Ryan Beene and Larry Vellequette contributed to this report