Forecasts of US light vehicle sales for July were marked by periods of optimism bracketed by bouts of pessimism. The economy and political wrangling over the debt ceiling in Washington had an effect, as did lingering supply and production problems. Nonetheless, the automakers managed to eke out a small improvement last month, not only over July 2010, but over June 2011, as well.

According to Ward’s, nearly 1.056m cars and light trucks were delivered last month, 4.7% ahead of July 2010 and 0.6% ahead of June 2011. This works out to a SAAR of 12.23m, well ahead of last July and the highest rate since April of this year.

Toyota and Honda took it on the chin and Subaru ended the month in the red. Honda sales were down 25.6%, dropping the No. 2 Japanese automaker to sixth in the rankings. Surprisingly, Nissan, Mazda and the rest of the Japanese car companies posted better numbers, including a 46.6% leap for Mitsubishi , the largest gain for any automaker.

The Detroit Three claimed the lion’s share of the July market with higher volumes all round. Chrysler led the trio with a 25.2% jump as Jeep sales soared 49%, making it the third most popular American brand after Ford and Chevrolet. The Wrangler celebrated its 70th birthday by outselling every SUV and crossover except the Ford Escape and the Chevrolet Equinox.

Fleet sales helped lift GM’s results 11.8%, netting a 20.4% market share. The Cruze is a solid hit; it’s on track to supplant the Ford Fusion as the best-selling American car.

Ford’s numbers were solidly in the black with a nice boost from Lincoln , up 40%. The Escape and Edge set new July sales records. Sales of the F-Series pickup were off slightly but there’s little doubt it will rack up another year as America’s most popular vehicle.

The Koreans announced new sales records. Hyundai’s Sonata is selling briskly and KIA reported new Optima sales were up 264.7% over the previous model.

Audi set a new record of its own and Volkswagen finished the month 26.4% ahead of July 2010. The Jetta is the best-selling European car and VW has high hopes for the new Passat due this autumn.

Perhaps it was the stock market, but July sales of upscale vehicles fell 4.3% compared to the same period last year. BMW has the lead over Mercedes and Lexus’ production limitations make it likely will be a new luxury leader at the end of the year. 

Though petrol prices are higher than they were last month and a dollar higher than last year, light trucks took a 53.1% slice of the pie, more than they did in July 2010 or June 2011.

Though the spectre of default has been at least temporarily banished, unemployment and the fear of a slide back into recession continue to colour consumer confidence, especially when it comes to big-ticket items and finance contracts. Without some meaningful change in the economic picture, the 13m full-year sales that looked to be a sure thing in the spring may not happen for another year.