DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group posted 156,308 sales in January, down 3.5% from year-ago levels, based on daily sellilng rates (25 selling days this year vs. 24 in 2006).

Based on volume, the auto maker was up just under 1%, enough to crow about given the industry as a whole was down 4% from year-ago, says Steven Landry, vice president-sales and field operations.

“Against an industry trend, we’re off to a promising start. The increase of 1% is a strong result compared to a strong result last year,” Landry says.

Landry is pleased, given January typically is the slowest sales month, and he says Chrysler’s results were driven by retail sales as opposed to less-profitable fleet sales.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have announced concerted efforts to reduce their dependence on rental fleet sales. Chrysler declines to reveal the percentage of total sales that are fleet, saying the auto maker has a policy of disclosing the figures quarterly.

However, Chrysler is forecasting lower daily rental and total fleet sales in 2007, Landry says. “Our overall 3-year plan is to continue to bring it (fleet sales) down over time.

“We’re going to continue to be successful working the commercial and government end of the business, and we’re fortunate in January to have that up 40%,” Landry says of this more profitable side of the fleet business.

Highlights of Chrysler’s January results include a strong showing by the Jeep brand, which saw sales climb 14.0% vs. year-ago, based on daily selling rate. Driving Jeep sales were the Wrangler, up 124.4% to 8,954 units, and the Jeep Commander, which posted an increase of 25.2% with 5,491 deliveries.

Sales of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty were down 25.8% and 26.1%, respectively, compared with like-2006.

“With our January (volume) sales results, Chrysler Group is off to a very promising start in 2007,” Landry says. “Our numbers mark the best January in the last six years and were driven by sales of the all-new Jeep Wrangler and the Jeep Commander.”

The all-new Jeep Patriot launched in late December and now is arriving in dealerships.

Chrysler’s minivan lineup also had a solid month, with Town & Country sales up 15.6% (11,377) and Dodge Caravan up 9.7% (18,593).

Chrysler’s increase in minivan sales comes as cross-town rivals GM and Ford are exiting the market due to flagging sales in their respective minivan lineups.

The Dodge Ram fullsize pickup bucked the downward trend in the segment with sales of 24,379 units, a year-over-year increase of 7.4%.

Not all came up roses for Chrysler in January, as a number of key models saw double-digit declines, including the Chrysler 300 (off 35.3%); Sebring sedan (27.3%); Crossfire (33.7%); PT Cruiser (28.8%); and Pacifica (27.0%).

The Dodge Magnum and Charger models were off 41.1% and 11.0%, respectively.

Chrysler says it will continue its current incentive programs launched in January, which have helped clear out ’06 inventory.

They include low-rate financing and up to $5,000 consumer cash on selected models, Michael Manley, vice president-sales strategy and dealer operations, says.

According to a study by Edmunds.com, the average automotive manufacturer incentive in the U.S. was $2,276 per vehicle sold in January 2007, down $96, or 4%, from December 2006, and down $149, or 6%, from January 2006.

Chrysler’s incentive spending dropped 8% compared with last year, according to Edmunds.

Chrysler closed the month with 488,410 units of inventory, or a 78-day supply. Inventory is down 9% compared with like-2006’s 538,483 units.

bpope@wardsauto.com