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* Chrysler ousts Ford as No. 1 in sales in Canada in January
* Analysts have optimistic outlook for 2013 vehicle sales
* Japan carmakers sales dip vs very strong comparables
Feb 1 (Reuters) - Auto sales in Canada slipped 2.2 percent in January, data showed on Friday, on weaker demand for European vehicles and strong comparable data from a year ago when Japan's automakers were rebounding from earthquake and tsunami disruptions.
While Canadian demand for vehicles made by Toyota Motor Corp and Audi fell sharply last month, appetite for vehicles assembled by Detroit's Big Three automakers rose as buyers snapped up their more fuel-efficient passenger cars.
"The Detroit Three enjoyed a great month, growing their combined market share from 45.6 percent to 49.2 percent," independent industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers said.
He cautioned, however, that maintaining that share, which foreign automakers have been eating into for the past few years, "will be a challenge."
Overall, the industry sold 95,306 vehicles in January, down from 97,497 in January 2012 when sales jumped more than 15 percent amid recovering production at Japanese automakers following the devastating earthquake- and tsunami-caused major supply disruptions.
Despite last month's dip, DesRosiers said it looked as if the year "is off to a solid start."
After a strong 2012, Canadian vehicle sales are expected to continue to increase this year, nearing - or even exceeding - the record of 1.7 million set in full-year 2002 on the back of pent-up demand left over from the recession and higher employment especially in Western Canada, analysts have said.
Chrysler Canada was No. 1 in sales in January, ousting Ford of Canada, as the unit of Fiat SpA's Chrysler LLC increased sales by 2.6 percent to 17,013. This was Chrysler's best January performance since 1996.
Chrysler's sales of cars rose 1.5 percent to 2,566 while its truck sales increased 2.8 percent to 14,447.
Ford of Canada, a unit of Ford Motor Co, came in at No. 2 with an 8.1 percent jump in sales to 16,197, its best January performance in 10 years.
Car sales at Ford, which includes the Ford Fusion and Ford Focus models, increased 24 percent to 3,634 while truck sales rose 4.3 percent to 12,563.
"With forecasts showing that 2013 could be a record sales year, we see lot of opportunity for sales growth for Ford," said Ford of Canada President and Chief Executive Dianne Craig.
General Motors of Canada, a subsidiary of General Motors Inc , came in at third place with sales up 6.2 percent in January to 13,761, the company said, led by a 40 percent surge in compact car sales. This is a marked turnaround from a nearly 7 percent fall in sales in 2012 at the company, which sells Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac brands.
"We are looking forward to further momentum in 2013 driven by our aggressive launch cadence, where approximately 70 percent of our vehicles will be all-new or significantly refreshed," said Marc Comeau, GM of Canada's vice president of sales, service and marketing.
Toyota Canada said it sold 9,438 vehicles last month, down 11.5 percent, partly because of a shortage of RAV4 inventory in advance of the launch this month of an all-new 2013 RAV4 model.
Honda Motor Corp's sales were down 26.5 percent to 6,211. And Audi's fell 26.2 percent to 1,107.
In the United States, several major automakers, including GM 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.