* Post recession demand, higher employment to boost sales
* 2013 Canadian sales could top record set in 2002
* GM expects company growth to exceed market projections
* Honda hopes to sell 150,000 autos in 2013
By Solarina Ho
TORONTO, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Canadian vehicle sales could reach an all-time high this year, topping the near-record 1.7 million vehicles the industry sold in 2012, automotive executives said on Thursday.
Pent-up demand from the recent recession, rising employment and a wave of new models are driving sales for the Canadian units of the Detroit Three as well as other foreign-based automakers, analysts have said.
"The Canadian industry is a very mature market, but I think we believe it will top 1.7 million for the next two to three years," Dave Gardner, vice president of sales and marketing at Honda, told Reuters at Canadian International Auto Show. "That's a pretty robust market."
General Motors of Canada, a subsidiary of General Motors Co , forecast industry growth of 2 to 3 percent, while Chrysler, a unit of Fiat SpA's Chrysler LLC, expects growth to be "plus or minus 2 to 3 percent" for the full year.
The Canadian market is fairly stable relative to 2012, said Reid Bigland, Chrysler's Canadian chief executive.
Ford of Canada, a unit of Ford Motor Co, is expecting the industry to exceed the record 1.73 million units sold in 2002 and could reach 1.76 million in 2013, said Dianne Craig, the unit's chief executive.
Ford was the top-selling automaker in Canada for the third year in a row in 2012 while Chrysler, which was in third place in 2011, knocked GM from the No. 2 spot.
The bullish comments follow strong January sales for the Detroit Three, both in Canada and in the United States. Sales south of the border outpaced the broader U.S. economic recovery as a growing number of consumers replace their aging cars and trucks.
The Detroit automakers, which wrapped up union contract talks last autumn, operate a number of assembly plants in the Canadian province of Ontario. Honda Motor Co Ltd and Toyota Motor Corp are the only other foreign automakers with plants in Canada.
GM Canada expects the company's own growth to exceed market forecasts, helped by the overhaul of about 70 percent of its line of vehicles over the next year and a half.
"That puts the company in much better footing," said Kevin Williams, president of GM Canada. "We see an opportunity to begin to regrow our share. We've stabilized the business."
Sales for Honda, which won the Car of the Year award at the auto show on Thursday for its new Accord model, slumped 26.5 percent in January.
Despite the slow start to 2013, Gardner said the company still aims for sales close to 150,000, rising from around 132,000 sold in 2012. The figures exclude Honda's Acura nameplate, whose recent sales have disappointed.
Toyota Canada recorded an 18.4 percent increase in sales in 2012, but managing director Stephen Beatty said sustaining that kind of growth was unrealistic.
Still, Toyota expects sales to keep rising in 2013, having launched a number of redesigned vehicles recently, including the Canadian-built RAV4, with more in the pipeline.