DETROIT – U.S. sales of cars and trucks rose in January, a strong start to what the auto industry hopes will be an extension of last year's recovery.
In another good sign, sales to individuals were better than sales to fleet buyers such as rental-car companies, which are far less profitable for automakers
General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC said sales rose 23 percent in January. Ford Motor Co. had a smaller gain of 9 percent.
"Consumers are driving much of the gains that we're seeing in the industry," said Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. sales for GM. "January signals a good start to the year for us, for the industry, and we think it's a good sign for the overall U.S. economy."
A year ago, fleet sales spiked to high levels as businesses started buying again after the recession.
But this January, consumers were back in showrooms.
GM's sales to individual buyers rose 36 percent while fleet sales dropped 7 percent. Ford and Chrysler also said their fleet sales fell.
Pickup sales were strong all of 2010 as construction companies and other small businesses began buying again, and that trend seemed to continue last month.
Retail sales of GM's big pickups jumped 37 percent.
Sales of its new compact Chevrolet Cruze rose 5 percent over sales for the car it replaced, the Cobalt. Nearly 90 percent of Cruze sales went to individual buyers, while 60 percent of Cobalt sales went to fleets.
As a result, GM got a far higher price for the Cruze, and it's attracting customers who had not considered GM in the past, the company said.
Chrysler's sales increase was driven by strong demand for the entire Jeep brand. Sales of the Grand Cherokee SUV, the brand's newest vehicle, rose 130 percent.
Other automakers reporting sales were:
— Nissan Motor Co. sales rose 15 percent on the strength of its Rogue vehicle. Nissan also sold 87 Leaf electric vehicles. January was the Leaf's second month on the market.
— Kia Motors sales rose 26 percent, led by the Sorento, which blends the features of a car and an SUV, and the Optima sedan.