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Ford, Chrysler sales rise but GM's drop

It looks like Chrysler's U.S. auto sales began the year the way they ended 2011: on a strong note. Ford sales rose, too. GM, not so much.

Chrysler kicked off monthly U.S. auto sales reports Wednesday by posting a 44 percent increase in sales last month, helped by gains from its Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram brands.

Its Motown rival, Ford, reported a 7 percent gain, but it fell short of analysts' expectations. GM, the world's largest automaker, said its sales in January dropped 6 percent against a strong January a year ago.

Chrysler said it was the company's best January tally in four years. Sales of the Chrysler brand led the way with an 81 percent increase. Chrysler 200 sedan sales were eight times higher than a year ago.

Chrysler's sales were expected to be up about 35 percent, according to Edmunds and TrueCar.com. The smallest U.S. automaker also reported its fourth-quarter results on Wednesday.

Chrysler in 2011 was No. 4 in U.S. auto sales, behind leader General Motors, Ford and Toyota.

Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, sold 136,710 cars and trucks in January, spurred by a 60 percent jump in sales of the Focus small car. Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold predicted an 8.1 percent increase for Ford, while Edmunds.com expected a 9 percent gain.

GM said car sales were up 13 percent, led by the new subcompact Chevrolet Sonic and the Chevrolet Cruze. But the company saw weaker sales of crossovers like the Buick Equinox and GMC Acadia. Pickup truck sales also fell 6 percent.

Sales of the Chevrolet Volt electric car nearly doubled to 603. GM announced early in January that it will retrofit existing Volts to make them less prone to fires after a severe crash.

GM is one of the only major automakers that was expected to report a January sales decline. TrueCar.com forecasts that sales will be up 7 percent industrywide compared to last January.

Auto sales began a slow recovery late last year.

Industry analysts expect another strong month because buyers need to replace aging vehicles. They're also taking advantage of low interest rates and greater loan availability.

In its second full year managed by Italy's Fiat SpA and its hard-charging chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler also reported Wednesday that it turned a net profit of $183 million, up from a loss of $652 million in 2010. The company set a target for about $1.5 billion in net profit in 2012.

Chrysler 2011 sales reached $54.98 billion, a 31-percent rise from 2010, linked closely to strong sales in its home U.S. market.

Marchionne, also the CEO of Chrysler, said of the Detroit-area automaker: "Our house is in good order."

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Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.