Only one auto company posted a year-over-year U.S. sales increase for 2008 – and it was fractional.

Still, Subaru of America Inc.’s 0.3% gain stands out amid a long list of negative numbers, most of them in the double digits, such as Chrysler LLC’s 30.3% sales drop and Toyota Sales U.S.A. Inc.’s 15.4% decline, according to Ward’s data.

Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru delivered 187,699 units in the U.S. last year. It still is a minor player with 1.4% market share (up from 1.2%), but its unique 2008 sales feat was major considering the harsh economic conditions.

“It’s been a tough year, no doubt, but we had a record sales year for our Forester, Impreza and Legacy models,” Subaru spokesman Michael McHale tells Ward’s. “It was a question of bringing the right cars out at the right time.”

The redone Forester cross/utility vehicle debuted in 2008. It is larger than the previous model but still a midsize vehicle, making it alluring to consumers downsizing from fullsize SUVs as mid-year fuel prices soared.

“At a time when people were getting out of their big SUVs, we were offering the new Forester, so that helped a lot,” McHale says. “And all our vehicles are all-wheel drive, which is a big draw.”

Subaru also offered attractive lease terms at a time when some auto makers, notably Chrysler, were pulling back from leasing, says dealer George Glassman, head of the Glassman Automotive Group in Southfield, MI, a Detroit suburb.

“Detroit is a strong lease market, and Subaru has capitalized on that,” says Glassman, whose 4-brand store includes Subaru.

“It’s also a deal-driven market,” he says. “When General Motors (Corp.) took away employee discounts for most Saab models, a lot of my Saab customers ended up buying Subarus. It’s an incredible story of how one auto manufacturer is bucking the trend.”

Subaru’s 615 dealers in the U.S. get much of the credit for the Japanese brand’s sales achievement, says Tom Doll, executive vice president of Subaru of America, who lauds “the commitment, perseverance and dedication of our retail sales network.”

Subaru pursued a strategy that focused on brand building and leveraging the value, performance and utility of its products, Doll says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com