U.S. light-vehicle sales finished better than expected in December, further cementing the industry’s long-term growth pattern as deliveries climbed 10.2% for the year compared with 2010.

The market in the final month of 2011 posted a 13.5 million-unit seasonally adjusted annual rate, building on third-quarter daily sales that hit 13.4 million, the highest for any quarter since 14.2 million in second-quarter 2008.

December’s daily sales were down from November’s 13.6 million units. But excluding the 14.2 million SAAR of August 2009 when the government subsidized vehicle deliveries with its Cash-for-Clunkers program, last month saw the highest annual sales rate for any month since 13.6 million in August 2008.

December’s volume of 1.239 million units represented an 8.7% gain on prior-year’s 1.140 million, with 27 selling days for both periods.

The U.S. ended 2011 with 12.7 million LV sales, compared with prior-year’s 11.6 million, the highest since 2008’s 13.2 million.

Though it marks two straight years of increases since hitting bottom in 2009 with 10.4 million, the total still is comparatively low. Prior to 2009, the last time LV sales were lower was 1991 when volume was 12.3 million.

On the positive side, as long as the U.S. economy does not return to recessionary levels, steady long-term growth is inevitable.

Several auto makers posted hefty year-to-year gains in December. Sales leader General Motors wasan exception, with sales up just 4.6% compared with the industry’s double-digit average.

The auto maker’s market share slid as well, to 18.9% in the month from year-ago’s 19.7%. GM ended 2011 with 2.504 million deliveries for a 13.2% gain on 2010, while its share climbed to 19.7% compared with prior-year’s 19.1%.

Ford’s December volume increased 10.2%, compared with year-ago, slightly below the 10.8% rise it saw for the entire year. Sales totaled 205,895 units in December and 2.11 million for the year, vs. 1.91 million in 2010. Ford’s annual share inched up to 16.6% from year-ago’s 16.5%.

Toyota struggled to a sales gain of less than 1% in December, compared with prior-year, still hampered by low inventory of some models due to the disruption caused by Japan’s natural disasters earlier in the year.

The auto maker’s deliveries for 2011 fell 6.7% to 1.645 million units, while its share dropped to 12.9% vs. 15.3% in 2010 and 17.0% in 2009. It was Toyota’s lowest U.S. share since 12.2% in 2004.

Chrysler returned to the No.4 sales position last year for the first time in three years by overtaking Honda, due to a combination of refreshed products on top of the depleted inventory suffered by the Asian auto maker.

Chrysler delivered 1.362 million units in 2011, up 26.1% compared with year-ago, with its share climbing 10.7% from 2010’s 9.3%. The auto maker ended the year with a whopping 37.4% sales increase in December and 11.1% market penetration.

Honda’s sales nosedived in December, tumbling 18.8% compared with year-ago to 105,230.  Volume for the entire year was down 6.8% to 1.147 million. The auto maker’s share dropped to 9.0% from 10.6% in 2010 and 11.1% in 2009.

Nissan ended 2011 with its highest annual share ever, more impressive because it also incurred some inventory shortages due to Japan’s natural disasters. Market penetration of 8.2% edged out 2010’s 7.9%.

The auto maker sold 1.043 million units for a 14.7% year-over-year increase, marking its third-best year on record. December deliveries totaled 100,927, up 7.7% from like-2010.

Hyundai and Kia both posted major increases for the month and for the year. Hyundai’s December sales grew 13.3%, compared with year-ago, while Kia’s deliveries soared 42.5%.  Hyundai posted a 20.0% gain for the year, and Kia was up 36.3%.

Hyundai-Kia combined earned their highest U.S. annual share ever of 8.9% in 2011, compared with 7.8% in 2010, and beat Nissan for the first time.

Other solid sales gains in December came from Daimler (up 49.5%), Volkswagen (36.2%), Subaru (26.2%), Audi (20.0%), BMW (17.9%) and Volvo (12.3%). Porsche, Saab and Suzuki were the other auto makers besides Honda to see declines.

hstoddard@wardsauto.com