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(Reuters) - Canadian vehicle sales rose a sturdy 5.7 percent last year to 1.68 million, their second highest level on record, lifted by demand for fuel-efficient passenger cars, stylish European imports and well-priced Korean models.
Ford Motor Co of Canada (F.N) was the top-selling automaker in Canada for the third year in a row while Chrysler FIA.MI, which was in third place in 2011, knocked General Motors (GM.N) from the No. 2 perch.
Vehicle sales are expected to continue to increase this year, nearing -- or even exceeding -- the record of 1.7 million set in 2002, on the back of pent-up demand left over from the recession and higher employment especially in Western Canada, analysts said.
"Expect another good year," said independent auto sector analyst Dennis DesRosiers, adding, however, that the softness evident in late 2012 "concerns us."
Ford said on Thursday it sold 276,068 vehicles in Canada last year, just 90 more than in 2011, including more than 100,000 F-Series trucks, which remained the best-selling vehicle in Canada for the third consecutive year.
Chrysler Canada's vehicle sales rose 6 percent to 243,845 last year, its best for retail sales results since 2000.
"Our investment in fuel-efficient new vehicles and power trains has propelled us to be the number two seller," President and Chief Executive Reid Bigland said, forecasting continued strong sales in 2013.
Dianne Craig, president and CEO at Ford of Canada, also said the company was optimistic about growth.
Vehicle sales at General Motors of Canada fell 6.6 percent in 2012 to 226,825, putting it in third place for the year. GM of Canada President and Managing Director Kevin Williams described Canada's auto market as "highly competitive."
Although the Detroit Three automakers kept their long-held lead in the Canadian market last year, their market share dipped to 44.5 percent from 47.2 percent in 2011 as sales of imported vehicles grew at their expense, data from DesRosiers showed.
Japanese automakers reported strong annual sales growth in 2012 but that was off a low base in 2011 when a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan disrupted production and sales.
Toyota Canada (7203.T) said its sales rose 18.4 percent to 192,058 last year while Honda Canada (7267.T) said combined Honda and Acura sales jumped 21 percent to 148,712. The Honda Civic retained its position as Canada's top-selling passenger car for the 15th consecutive year.
Vehicle sales in Canada overall dipped 4.9 percent in December, DesRosiers figures showed.
Ford said its vehicle sales slipped 13 percent to 16,874 in the month while GM Canada, whose lineup includes Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles, said its sales fell 20 percent to 14,623.
Sales at Chrysler Canada, which includes its Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Fiat and Ram models, rose 1 percent to 14,756 vehicles. Chrysler Canada is wholly owned by Chrysler Group LLC, which in turn is controlled by Italy's Fiat SpA FIA.MI.
South of the border, U.S. auto sales rose 9 percent in December, led by foreign manufacturers, capping off the best year for the industry since before the recession. The year's sales were driven by a slowly recovering economy, more available credit and the need for consumers and businesses to replace aging cars and trucks.
Reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Grant McCool, David Gregorio and Phil Berlowitz