January car sales in the US of about 16 million were down 5.2 percent on January 2001 but ahead of most analysts’ more pessimistic expectations.

The analysts had predicted a poorer result following the scaling back of zero-interest deals by the Detroit Big Three and a reduction in importers’ incentives.

A continuing slump in fleet deliveries was cited as one reason that sales by the Big Three – General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler – were down 11.8 percent. GM, whose sales were off 13 percent in total, with passenger car sales down 34 percent, cited a 58 percent drop in daily car rental deliveries to financially troubled ANC, the Alamo and National car rental operator.

But Burnham Securities analyst David Healy, noting that import brands increased sales 6.5 percent, had another idea.

“There are three reasons for that,” Healy told Associated Press. “Product, product and product.”

Standard and Poors analyst Efraim Levy told AP that the import brands’ entry into market sectors Detroit once considered its own – sport utility vehicles and large pickup trucks – also contributed to the importers’ gain and the Big Three’s pain.

While Ford sales dropped 12 percent and Chrysler‘s nine percent, Toyota posted a 7.1 percent rise, Nissan 9.6 percent, Hyundai 22 percent, KIA 32 percent and Daewoo 66 percent. Subaru was up just 1.8 percent but Mitsubishi boosted results by 20 percent.

Typically, the import brands who did best were those with new products, reflected by Honda’s 1.5 percent drop as the due-for-replacement Accord, was overshadowed by the new Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima.

Ford’s import brands did well in January, however. Thanks to the new Freelander opening up Land Rover to the compact SUV sector, the brand’s sales soared 133 percent and Jaguar, now with the compact X-type in the catalogue, jumped 88 percent. Volvo sold one extra car in January 2002, compared with the first month of 2001.

Volkswagen‘s recently revised Passat increased sales 65.2 percent helping the brand up six percent, Audi was up 2.5 percent, Mercedes-Benz 19 percent, BMW 16 percent and Porsche 27.5 percent.