The seasonally adjusted annualised rate (SAAR) was 14.18m units, the highest since May 2008. Industry-wide, volume was up 11.4% to 910,269 sales.

Mazda sales rose 68.2% on the automaker's best January volume since 1994, thanks to the 2 and 3. Volkswagen’s Passat, now US-built, Golf and Beetle carried it past every January since 1974 to a 47.9% improvement. Chrysler group sales were up 43.5% on an 81.4% increase in sales of its flagship Chrysler brand, the largest gain of any marque.

Ford sales rose 7.9% as Lincoln continued to be a drag on the blue oval. The Focus is said to be cannibalising sales of the Fiesta instead of munching on the competition. Nonetheless, the well-fed Focus produced a healthy 59.8% improvement.

General Motors took a hit last month as all four brands came up short. The 6.1% drop was expected as GM had slashed incentives. Deficits ranged from Chevy’s 1.2% miss to Cadillac’s 29.1% plunge. Volt sales slowed on concerns about the battery pack.

Toyota sales rose 7.5%. Yaris, Camry and Avalon sales overcame weakness in light trucks and the Lexus brand. Sales of Toyota hybrids rose 19.8%.

Honda reported a better-than-expected 8.8% increase built on strong results from the Civic and new CR-V. In contrast to Toyota, Honda hybrid sales fell off a cliff, dropping 57.9%.

Nissan’s 10.4% increase was led by the Altima, Maxima and new Quest minivan. The Altima was second in passenger car sales and fourth in the overall sales rankings. The Leaf was the best-selling electric vehicle in January.

Subaru was back on track, posting a new January sales record. Mitsubishi and Suzuki both came up short. Mitsubishi missed by 17.6% and Suzuki was down 41.3% as Kizashi sales cratered.

Sales of the new Rio and the Optima drove Kia sales up 27.8% last month to a new record while the Sonata and Elantra did the same for Hyundai with 14.7% boost.

Audi leapfrogged Acura and Cadillac, taking fourth spot in the premium segment and posting another record month.

Shut down in 2011, Mercedes began the year with a 23.3% gain, a new monthly sales record and the top spot in the premium segment. BMW sales were up, too, but 5.8% wasn’t enough.

Porsche sales rose, but Boxster inventory shortages limited the improvement.

Jaguar Land Rover finished the month up 30.7% as both brands reported improved sales.

Volvo sales rose 4.3% while Saab dealers sold off remaining inventory.

Bucking a trend of gradual increases, luxury sales claimed just 10.8% of the market compared to 11.8% a year ago. Pickup share dropped a full point as passenger car sales claimed 50.3% of sales, up sharply from a 46.6% share in January 2011. Midsize sedans were the hot ticket.

The market is still driven by pent-up demand and a shortage of used vehicles though recent drops in consumer confidence could mean trouble. Still, industry watchers are cautiously raising their 2012 forecasts to above 13.5m units.

US market recovery to maintain momentum – analyst

GM says US January SAAR 13.5-13.6m