U.S. light-vehicle sales started the year with the best seasonally adjusted annual rate for any January in five years, as most major auto makers posted strong gains over year-ago.

January’s 15.2 million SAAR built on the momentum of fourth-quarter 2012’s 15.0 million-unit total. It was the best January since 15.5 million in 2008 and well above year-ago’s 13.9 million.

Sales totaled 1.04 million units for a daily rate of 41,584 over 25 selling days, up 9.6% from year-ago’s 37,925 with 24 days.

By segmentation, sales of cross/utility vehicles, upper middle cars and large pickups did the most to spark January.

Deliveries of CUVs, the biggest segment group, climbed 17.2% from like-2012. Sales of all five segments in the group enjoyed hefty increases, ranging from 10.1% for middle-luxury versions to 73.0% for small-luxury models. CUV deliveries represented 25.2% of January’s industry total, compared with 23.6% year-ago.

Auto makers credit pent-up demand and growth in housing and construction, not incentives, for lifting large pickups. The segment’s sales surged 19.9% compared with prior-year, accounting for 11.8% of the market vs.10.8%, for the best January in four years.

Market leader General Motors’ sales climbed 11.3% in January from year-ago, giving it an 18.7% share, compared with 18.5%. It was the first time since September 2011 that GM’s share increased from the same year-ago month.

Ford, largely due to greater availability of the new Ford Fusion, Escape and Focus, saw sales rise 16.8% from like-2012, its best year-over-year gain since 23.3% in October 2010. The auto maker’s share surged to 15.7% from prior-year’s 14.8%.

Toyota’s share grew to 14.9% from year-ago’s 13.7%, while sales jumped 21.6%.

Chrysler posted its 34th straight year-over-year gain in January. Sales ramped up 12.1% from like-2012, and its 11.3% share improved from prior-year’s 11.0%.

Market share increases at GM, Ford, Toyota and Chrysler appeared to come at the expense of Honda and Nissan. Despite an 8.3% sales gain, Honda’s results were well below expectation.

A poor showing from some of its Acura cars, and an atypical decline for its Honda CR-V cross/utility vehicle, caused the auto maker to see its share fall to 9.0% from year-ago’s 9.1%. But sales of the redesigned Accord were up 68%.

Nissan deliveries fell short of year-ago by 2.1%, pushing its share down nearly a full percentage point to 7.7%, despite a heavy mix of new products heading into the year. One bright spot was the Pathfinder large CUV, which tripled year-ago sales of its predecessor SUV version, helping to push the segment up 41.8%.

Stiff competition from the Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion appeared to lampoon deliveries of Nissan’s redesigned midsize Altima, which posted a loss over year-ago’s older model.

A noticeable highlight in January was Porsche. The luxury brand’s total volume of 3,358 units marked its best January ever, and the fourth highest monthly total for the German luxury brand since at least 1980.

Porsche is on a definite upswing as three of its top four U.S. sales months since 1980 have occurred in the past nine months. Thanks to the brand, the industry’s luxury-sports-car sales surged 31.5% last month from year-ago.

Other gainers in January included Mercedes (6.4%), Subaru (16.4%), Jaguar Land Rover (19.8%), Volvo (4.9%) and Volkswagen/Audi (2.4%).

Among the losers, South Korean juggernauts Hyundai and Kia appeared to have hit a wall. Kia’s sales were down for the second straight month, and Hyundai declined for the second time in four months.

BMW, Mazda and Suzuki, which has abandoned the U.S. market, also were down.

hstoddard@wardsauto.com