* GM, Ford, Toyota top Wall Street forecasts
* Chrysler, Honda, Nissan fall short of analysts' estimates
* Overall sales in line with Street view
Several major automakers, including General Motors Co and Toyota Motor Corp , posted better-than-expected U.S. vehicle sales for January, kicking off the fourth straight year of the sector's recovery from the depths of recession.
But other automakers fell short of analyst expectations, notably Honda Motor Co, Nissan Motor Co and Chrysler Group LLC.
Americans' growing need to replace their aging vehicles served as one of the main drivers behind January's sales growth, analysts and executives said. They added that factor is expected to help auto sales outpace the broader U.S. economy this year.
Industry sales are expected to have jumped by 14 percent in January compared to the same month last year, Kurt McNeil, GM's head of U.S. sales operations, said on Friday. This would represent a 50 percent gain over January 2010 levels.
"This says to us that we continue to recover strongly from the recession despite the headwinds of higher taxes and lower government spending," he said on a conference call.
Pickup trucks in particular outpaced the broader market last month, helped by improvements in the U.S. housing sector and purchases by small businesses, including bakeries, caterers and plumbers, GM executives said.
The average car on the road is more than 11 years old, according to automotive consulting firm Polk, as U.S. consumers delayed new vehicle purchases during the recession and the early days of the economic recovery.
"Truck buyers delayed their purchases longer than any other segment," TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak said. "The biggest driver of truck sales is the housing market. Business owners are now feeling more positive about the prospects of the economy."
U.S. auto sales in 2012 rose more than 13 percent to 14.5 million cars and trucks, and GM forecast an increase to between 15 million and 15.5 million for 2013. This year's performance is expected to continue the strong pace set at the end of 2012.
The industry could grow as much as 7 percent in 2013, GM predicted. Ford Motor Co forecast a gain of as much as 8 percent, triple the 2 to 2.5 percent growth it sees for the overall economy.
In January, GM posted a 16 percent year-on-year increase to 194,669 vehicles sold, while smaller U.S. rival Ford logged a 22 percent jump to 166,501. Japan's Toyota was up nearly 27 percent, at 157,725. The three automakers, which account for nearly half the U.S. market, beat Wall Street forecasts.
But other automakers fell short of estimates, including Chrysler. The No.3 U.S. automaker, majority owned by Italy's Fiat SpA, posted a 16 percent gain to 117,731 vehicles. Nissan increased by 2 percent to 80,919, and Honda's 12.8 percent rise to 93,626 sales came in well below the gain of more than 20 percent projected by analysts.
OUTPACING THE INDUSTRY
During the depths of the U.S. economic recession in 2009, U.S. auto sales tumbled to 10.4 million, the lowest level since the early 1980s, pushing GM and Chrysler to file for bankruptcy. Since then, the industry has rebounded, including sales in November and December that would have translated to at least 15.4 million over a full year.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had forecast that annual sales rate to hit 15.2 million in January.
GM predicted the annual sales rate for January would hover around 15.3 million vehicles, while Ford said the rate would be in the mid-15 million range, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks, which usually add 300,000 sales to the rate.
Executives said pent-up demand, an improved housing market and the wider availability of credit would help the auto industry continue to outpace the broader U.S. economy, which unexpectedly contracted in the last three months of 2012.
U.S. auto sales are among the early indicators of economic health each month. On Friday, the U.S. Labor Department said employment grew modestly in January and gains in the prior two months were bigger than initially reported.
GM said purchases of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickup trucks jumped by about one-third for each model. Ford's F-Series truck sales were up 22 percent, while Chrysler's Ram pickup trucks were up 14 percent. Pickup trucks generate some of the strongest profits for automakers.
GM, the largest U.S. automaker by sales, said incentives on its current trucks were higher compared to a year ago. The company will launch its new lineup of trucks in the second quarter.
Sales of cars and crossovers, such as the recently launched Ford Fusion mid-size sedan and the Chevy Equinox mid-size crossover, also helped boost the industry's performance last month.
But sales for Ford's luxury brand Lincoln fell 18 percent, hurt by inventory shortages of its newly launched MKZ sedan.
Ford said it was holding back those sedans to complete more-rigorous quality checks. MKZ inventory should be at planned levels by April, Ford U.S. sales executive Ken Czubay said, adding that the checks were "paramount" to relaunching the brand.