The Detroit 3 and Toyota led U.S. auto sales to a 14 percent gain last month as robust demand from November and December carried into the new year.
Automakers sold 1,043,192 light vehicles, the highest January volume since 2008. That translated to a seasonally adjusted annual selling rate of 15.3 million, following a 15.6 million SAAR in November and 15.4 million a month later. The industry hasn't seen such a 15-plus streak in five years.
"We continue to recover strongly from the recession, despite the headwinds of higher taxes and lower government spending," said General Motors sales chief Kurt McNeil, who downplayed a reported fourth-quarter decline in U.S. economic growth as a quirk of volatile defense spending.
"More important from our perspective: Customers bought cars and trucks in robust numbers," he said after his company posted a 16 percent January gain. "This feeds our optimism for the year."
Ford Motor sales boss Ken Czubay said pent-up demand continues to drive sales.
"I think the biggest driver of this year's story is going to be replacement," he said following Ford's 22 percent increase. Other big gainers included Toyota Motor Corp., up 27 percent, and Chrysler Group, up 16 percent.
U.S. sales have now topped the 1 million unit mark 12 months in a row. Last month ended a four-year stretch of Januarys below that level. All automakers posted sales increases except Mitsubishi, product-short Mazda, and Suzuki -- which is exiting the U.S. market.
Other January highlights:
Toyota leads the pack
Toyota Motor Sales led all automakers in January with a 27 percent gain, matching its percentage increase for all of 2012.
"We started with a bit of apprehension with the fiscal cliff, new tax rates, [a] slower month and the year-end push," Toyota brand General Manager Bill Fay said, but "the sales pace we saw in fourth quarter rolled right into January."
Rarity: Detroit 3 outperform market
All three Detroit-based automakers posted January sales increases better than the industry's 14 percent growth.
That didn't happen once last year. Chrysler beat the industry eight months in 2012, but GM and Ford both performed worse than the market did all 12 times.
Honda, VW cool off
Both American Honda and Volkswagen Group started the year up, but at a pace considerably slower than last year. Honda sales increased 13 percent last month after a 24 percent jump for all of 2012. VW rose 9 percent in January, down from 30 percent growth for the previous year.
The new luxury race
Last year, BMW edged Mercedes-Benz to retain its title as America's best-selling luxury brand, while former champ Lexus lagged well behind.
New year, new race. In January, Mercedes took an early 7,000-unit lead over BMW, while Lexus is only 302 units behind the Bavarians. And Cadillac, with its new ATS and XTS sedans in stock, jumped 47 percent to put itself into the mix.
Nissan, Hyundai-Kia lag
After double-digit 2012 sales growth, both Nissan North America and Hyundai-Kia Automotive recorded 2 percent January volume increases, well below industry average.
Smaller Japanese brands mixed
The three smallest-volume Japanese automakers all had tough starts to the year. Struggling Mitsubishi was down 1 percent, extending its streak of monthly declines to 13. So was Suzuki as it withdraws from the U. S. market. Awaiting a redesigned Mazda6 sedan, Mazda fell 11 percent.
Subaru, meanwhile, posted its 14th straight monthly increase, up 21 percent.
Other Euro brands gain
Jaguar ended a four-month slide with a 5 percent gain, while Land Rover rolled to a 31 percent gain. The corporate duo led smaller-volume European premium brands. Daimler group rose 11 percent despite a 3 percent decline at Smart, whose sales nearly doubled in 2012. Volvo rose 9 percent. BMW Group gained 2 percent overall; Mini's 10 percent rise pairing with a 1 percent increase for the BMW brand.
Pickup sales strengthen
Detroit 3 pickups started the new year with a flurry, up a combined 25 percent to 115,606 units as the U.S. housing industry gains momentum. Chrysler's newly redesigned Ram rose 14 percent. Ford F series jumped 24 percent, perhaps benefitting from Ford dropping the Ranger compact pickup. But the soon-to-be-replaced Chevrolet Silverado soared 32 percent and GMC Sierra was up 35 percent. Together, the aging GM pickups outsold the F series, 48,291 to 46,841.
A Chrysler insider said a surge of buyers in January told the automaker's dealers that they had put off making a purchase in December because of the Congressional debate on the fiscal cliff, but now felt a U.S. economic meltdown was unlikely.
TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak also observed that sentiment, noting that it was strongest among small business owners buying full-size pickups.