Analysts predict full-year sales of 15 million to 15.5 million this year. The industry could sell 5 million more cars and trucks than it did in 2009.
The strong January numbers came even though higher taxes reduced take-home pay for most Americans. Taxes rose after a 2-percent reduction in Social Security taxes that was in place for two years expired Jan. 1.
Toyota sales jumped on the strength of the Prius hybrid cars and wagon, which rose 36 percent, and the new Avalon sedan, which was up 50 percent.
At Ford, January's sales growth was led by the newly redesigned Fusion midsize car, which saw a 65 percent increase. Explorer SUV sales rose 46 percent.
Sales of Ford's F-Series pickup rose 22 percent. GM's Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups each saw increases of over 30 percent.
Chrysler's Ram pickup sales rose 14 percent from a year earlier.