Ford's luxury Lincoln brand fell 18 percent. Lincoln's new MKZ sedan, which is featured in a Super Bowl ad, is going on sale now, but could be tough for buyers to find. Ford's U.S. sales chief Ken Czubay said the new Lincolns are undergoing extra quality checks that will delay shipments through April.
Sales of the F-Series pickup truck, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S., rose 22 percent. GM's Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups each saw increases of over 30 percent while sales of the Ram pickup, Chrysler's top-selling vehicle, rose 14 percent from a year earlier. Those gains give a strong indication that businesses are replacing aging pickup trucks that they kept through the Great Recession.
Kurt McNeil, GM's vice president of sales operations, said the company noticed a 37 percent increase in sales to small businesses like building contractors, who normally buy pickup trucks.
Jackson, whose chain reported record fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday, feared a hangover last month from the strong finish to 2012. But he said people who focused on paying down debt the past few years are now making big-ticket purchases at a robust pace.
Consumers are saying: "I'm moving ahead with my life. I'm getting a new vehicle," Jackson said.
Buyers crowded dealerships even though incentives weren't as good as last year. The auto industry spent 8 percent less on discounts last month than it did a year earlier, according to TrueCar.com. Of all major automakers, only Hyundai and Volkswagen raised incentives from what they spent in January of 2012, TrueCar said.
But that could change later in the year as automakers are expected to compete for sales with new vehicles and better deals.
Other automakers reporting sales Friday:
— Honda's sales rose 12.8 percent. A 75-percent increase in sales of the new Accord helped offset weaker sales of the CR-V and Civic.
— Nissan's sales rose 2 percent. Sales of the newly redesigned Pathfinder SUV, which went on sale in November, more than tripled over last January. The new Sentra also saw big sales gains.
— Hyundai's sales rose 2 percent, with a 24 percent increase in Elantra small car sales helping outweigh an 8 percent decline for the midsize Sonata. Hyundai said it was a record January for its U.S. sales.
— Volkswagen's sales grew 7 percent. That was slower than the company's 31-percent sales growth last January, but it was still the company's best January in the U.S. since 1974. Passat midsize sedan sales rose 40 percent.