U.S. auto sales jumped by about 18 percent in January, led by gains for General Motors Co and Chrysler as the two Detroit automakers restructured by the U.S. government took share from rivals.
The stronger U.S. auto sales results pointed to a recovery in American consumer demand and a return of easier lending terms by banks, auto executives and analysts said, despite the threat of higher oil prices ahead.
Meanwhile, major automakers reported a strong start to 2011 outside the United States, soothing concerns about slower demand in growth-engine markets like India and a bumpy recovery in the developed markets of Europe.
The major risk, analysts said, remains the prospect that higher oil prices could crimp demand or send consumers scrambling toward the kinds of small vehicles that are typically less profitable for automakers.
"We're still not at the oil prices that would tilt the industry," said Nationwide chief economist Paul Ballew. "If oil prices don't trip us up, Detroit should have a pretty good year."
GM posted a 22 percent sales gain, pushing its market share above 20 percent.
It was the first time the top U.S. automaker had taken market share in six months and came along with a jump in sales of pickup trucks and SUVs, the heavy vehicles that remain GM's bread and butter.
GM's sales gain came as it stepped up spending on incentives to lure consumers, although the automaker vowed that it would not return to its much-criticized practice of buying market share with zero-percent financing and other discounts that undercut the resale value of its cars.
"We're not going to return to the days of driving production with incentives. We know that's not going to be a recipe for success for us," GM's sales chief, Don Johnson, told reporters and analysts.
Chrysler, which is pushing toward an initial public offering of stock in the second half of 2011, had a 23 percent sales gain.
Other major automakers trailed with double-digit sales gains: Toyota Motor Co (7203.T) gained 17 percent; Honda Motor Co (7267.T) and Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) were up 15 percent; Ford Motor Co (F.N) gained 13 percent.
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