- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 1, 2012

DETROIT U.S. auto sales are off to a strong start this year, continuing their brisk pace from late 2011.

Sales of cars and trucks rose 11 percent to 913,287 in January, kicking off what is expected to be the strongest year for the industry since before the recession in 2007. New products, low interest rates and better loan availability helped overcome lingering worries about the economy and pushed the sales pace to its highest level since the Cash for Clunkers program in August 2009.

Chrysler had its best January in four years. Toyota and Honda were back in the game, getting boosts from important new vehicles. Volkswagen, which wants to aggressively expand in the U.S., reported big increases. The only loser among the major automakers was General Motors Co., whose sales fell 6 percent from a strong January last year.

“For the first time in several years, we are starting the year off with a warm and fuzzy feeling,” said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for TrueCar.com,

January’s sales pace was even faster than December’s, a relief for the industry after a bumpy 2011. Sales started at a healthy pace last year but plummeted after the Japanese earthquake in March caused car shortages and didn’t really recover until the last four months of the year.

If sales stay at the same pace as this January, they would reach 14.2 million, up from 12.8 million in 2011, according to Autodata Corp. While that’s below the 2000 peak of 17.3 million, it’s better than the 10.4 million trough in 2009.

One reason car sales are improving is that buyers need to replace aging vehicles. The average age of a vehicle in the U.S. is a record 10.8 years, nearly two years older than a decade ago.

Chrysler’s January sales jumped 44 percent, led by surge in demand for Chrysler’s revamped 200 and 300 sedans. Chrysler sold 7,007 of the 200 midsize sedan last month, more than eight times the number it sold a year earlier. Sales of the Chrysler 300 large sedan almost quadrupled. Chrysler also reported its first full-year net income since 1997, helped its new lineup.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s sales rose 7.5 percent on strong demand for the new Camry, which went on sale in October. Camry sales rose 56 percent in January and the sedan remained America’s best-selling car, a distinction it has held for nearly 15 years. Sales of the Prius hybrid rose 9 percent.

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