General Motors light-vehicle sales start off the year in a hole, falling 6% from an incentive-fueled year-ago, but otherwise finishing “bang on” with expectations, the auto maker says.

GM delivered 167,962 cars and trucks in the U.S. last month, compared with 178,897 in January 2011, according to WardsAuto data. Both periods had 24 selling days.

“In our view, despite the fact our sales were down with a tough year-over-year comparison, we beat expectations,” says Don Johnson, GM’s chief sales analyst.

“We’re not at all disappointed where we’ve come to,” he tells journalists and Wall Street analysts in a conference call today to discuss the January results. “Our industry expectations (and GM’s) sales in the month, came in bang-on with what we expected.”

Johnson touts a preliminary market share number of between 18.8% and 18.9%, up from 18.4% in December. But reflecting GM’s aggressive incentives in the market year-ago, its January 2011 share stood at 21.4%. GM closed the year with 19.2% of the U.S. LV market.

Industry sales finished January at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 13.6 million-13.7 million units, the auto maker says, solidly within its LV forecast of 13.5 million-14.0 million for entire 2012.

“We continue to look optimistically towards 2012,” says Johnson, who also admits consumers continue to act with “an element of caution,” but appear “in general much more positive than six months ago.”

Historically low consumer confidence due to continued high unemployment rates and a housing market slow to rebound have been a drag on car sales coming out of the recession, and experts give mixed reports on American spending attitudes.

Earlier this week the Conference Board reported a retreat in consumer confidence after posting gains in November and December, while the University of Michigan’s monthly consumer sentiment index showed the highest level of buying bullishness since February 2011.

Johnson likes GM’s chances to build on its remarkable turnaround from bankruptcy two years ago, given the auto maker’s “aggressive and timely” product cadence amid what he calls a “steadily improving economy.”

The auto maker will launch by the end of summer the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan and all-new Spark small car, as well as all-new Cadillac XTS fullsize sedan and ATS small sports sedan. The new Buick Encore small cross/utility vehicle and redesigned GMC Acadia large CUV arrive late in the year.

Johnson estimates that by the end of 2012 the auto maker will have all-new or significantly refreshed cars and CUVs in segments representing 62% of the retail LV market, coming from a dealer network that is revamping its showrooms and approach to sales and customer service.

GM also will conduct a changeover to a next-generation lineup of large pickups and SUVs this year, idling in a staggered cadence the three U.S. plants making the trucks. The auto maker expects to maintain a relatively lean large pickup and SUV inventory of 200,000 units through the changeover this year, up slightly from 180,000 at the close of January.

Johnson reports no significantly higher incentive activity by Japanese auto makers in the month. Some analysts expect Toyota and Honda to become more aggressive after rebuilding inventories brought down by natural disasters in Japan and Thailand last year.

The auto maker’s Chevrolet brand turned in the best performance of any GM division in January, with sales falling a modest 1.2%, WardsAuto data shows. Buick sales were off 23.1%, while Cadillac deliveries sank 29.1% and GMC volume down 9.7%.

Among key products, the new-for-’12 Chevy Sonic small car accounted for 5,712 sales, or twice as many units as its Aveo predecessor did last year. Buick LaCrosse demand surged 6.4%, aided by the addition of a fuel-saving eAssist mild-hybrid model. GM says eAssist accounted for 20% of LaCrosse’s mix in January.

The Chevy Volt, however, succumbed to negative news surrounding a now-closed safety investigation by federal regulators. GM delivered 603 of the extended-range electric vehicles last month, less than half December’s volume.

jamend@wardsauto.com