U.S. auto makers are expected to maintain their sales momentum generated in fourth-quarter 2010, with Ward’s forecasting 820,000 light-vehicle deliveries in January, for a 34,159-unit daily selling rate over 24 days.

At forecast levels, January’s DSR represents a 17.7% increase over like-2009, which also had 24 selling days.

January traditionally is a low-volume month, especially compared with December, which benefits from year-end incentives. So the expected 19.1% daily sales drop this month from last is in line with historical trends.

As forecast, January U.S. LV sales should equate to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 12.6 million units, marking the fourth consecutive month of a 12-million-plus SAAR. Fourth-quarter 2010 saw a SAAR of 12.3 million units.

Ward’s currently is calling for 2011 full-year sales to top 13 million units, with monthly SAARs in the range of 12.3 million to 12.8 million.

Related document: Ward’s U.S. Lt. Vehicle Sales and Inventory Forecast

Uncertain is whether auto makers that used incentives to boost market share in December will hold steady or suffer fallbacks as incentives are withdrawn.

The Detroit Three and European OEMs historically see larger sales spikes in December, followed by January declines that exceed those by Asian car companies. This likely will be the case.

However, Detroit auto makers, which typically take the lion’s share of the commercial-fleet business, may see their month-to-month declines ameliorated as fleet sales continue to lead sales toward market recovery.

Nonetheless, Ward’s looks for the Detroit Three to give back some share this month, accounting for a collective 43.5% of the market, compared with December’s 44.8%.

General Motors Co. is expected to sell 160,000 LVs for 9.8% increase over year-ago. Its 19.5% share will be roughly equal to December.

Ford Motor Co. is forecast to deliver more than 127,000 LVs, lifting its daily sales rate 15.1% over year-ago for a 15.5% share.

The Ward’s forecast calls for Chrysler Group LLC to take 8.4% of the market with 69,000 deliveries, a 22% hike from like-2010.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., still losing share based on the current fleet-to-retail mix, is projected to take 15.2% of January’s LV sales share on 125,000 deliveries. This represents a 26% gain on year-ago, when the company’s sales were undercut by recalls.

American Honda Motor Co. Inc. is expected to grab 11% of the market, with a 33% DSR boost, while Nissan North America Inc. may outsell Chrysler. Nissan’s projected sales are 21.4% above like-2010.

The Hyundai-Kia Group should maintain seventh place with 8.2% of the market, but a slight shift in mix between the group and Chrysler could see the pentastar company fall to seventh for only the second time in its history.