Automakers sold 1.59 million vehicles in 2011, up from 1.56 million in 2010, according to data released Wednesday by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.
Though the growth in sales was uneven from month to month as economic uncertainty pervaded consumer sentiment, the overall trend was up.
Sales in December grew 2.6 per cent from the last month of 2010, capping off the year with the third consecutive month of sales growth.
The figures for 2011 far outpaced the 1.46 million sold in 2009 — the worst sales year for the industry since 1998. But, 2011 sales were well short of their pre-recession levels of 1.64 million units in 2008 and 1.65 million in 2007.
Analysts predict 2012 sales will be in line with 2011 as a recession in Europe, slower growth in emerging markets and an uncertain economic and political climate in the U.S. continue to weigh on consumer sentiment.
Truck sales grew 4.7 per cent last year, while car sales fell by about 1.6 per cent.
Ford Canada, the sole Detroit big three automaker that eschewed government bailouts during the recession, claimed the title of Canada's top-selling automaker in 2011 for the second year in a row.
The Detroit-based automaker said Wednesday its Canadian vehicle sales were up three per cent to 275,978 from 267,974 in 2010, led by strong sales of SUVs and crossover vehicles.
"Full-sized trucks are experiencing record-breaking sales in Canada," said Scott Cauvel, vice president of sales, Ford of Canada.
Unlike its major rivals, Ford was able to avoid massive restructuring and bailouts by U.S. and Canadian governments. As such, it was quicker to focus on a new product line that is centred on more fuel efficient vehicles, a demand that is rising as consumers worry about rising gas prices — a move that it credits for its strong sales.
However, the company saw slightly weaker sales in December compared with a year ago, with 19,381 vehicles sold, down 0.5 per cent from the 19,477 sold in December 2010.
Cauvel added that the company is optimistic that the industry will continue to grow in 2012.
Chrysler Canada said it has capped its best retail sales year since 2002 with a two per cent increase in overall light vehicle sales in December.
For the full year, combined sales were 230,992, compared with 204,955 in 2010, a 12.7 per cent increase.
"For the second year in a row, Chrysler Canada was the No. 1 market share gainer in the country," president and CEO Reid Bigland said in a release.
Chrysler said it sold a total of 14,628 vehicles in December, up from 14,407 in the same month last year.
General Motors Canada however, disappointed with a 1.7 per cent decline in 2011 and a 9.4 per cent drop from last December.
Import vehicles captured slightly more market share than their domestic counterparts, holding steady with 2010 figures at about 53 per cent of the market.
However, the results of foreign brands varied, with European automakers reporting serious traction, while Japanese automakers lost out.
Volkswagen Canada said it had its best-ever sales year in 2011, beating the previous record set in 2010 by 16 per cent with a total 52,604 vehicles sold.
BMW sales were up 10.2 per cent, Porsche up 8.7 per cent, Volvo and Mercedes up four per cent, and Jaguar up 2.8 per cent.
"Rarely have all European brands seen an increase in sales in any calendar year," Dennis DesRosiers said in commentary.
"Just like how the 1990’s were the decade for the Japanese and how the first decade of this century belonged to the Koreans, three years in, this decade is shaping up to be for the European brands."
Japanese brands bounced back at the end of the from inventory problems caused by Japan's earthquake and tsunami in March, but many still posted a decline in full-year sales.
"The Japanese were obviously hurt by the tsunami and floods but also made some serious product mistakes and were hurt by other brands that became more competitive in their core segments," DesRosiers said.
Toyota Canada sales climbed a whopping 41.8 per cent in December to 12,291, but full-year sales still fell 5.6 per cent from 2010 levels.
Honda Canada said the parts shortages were responsible for a 12 per cent decline in annual sales of Hondas and Acuras to 123,121 units.
Nissan Canada bucked the trend among Japanese automakers and reported its best-ever sales year with a 3.9 per cent year-over-year increase to 77,731 units.
Korean brands fared well.
Hyundai Canada, which has been gaining market share in Canada, said its 2011 sales were the best in its history. The maker of the Sonata and other vehicles said it sold 129, 240 vehicles last year, up 9.1 per cent over 2010.
In December, it sold 6,490 vehicles, up 6.3 per cent from the same month in 2010.
And Kia Canada also reported a record year with 65,123 vehicles sold, up 20.9 per cent year-over-year.
In the U.S., auto sales are expected to show a rise to around 12.7 million in 2011. That's a 10 per cent jump from 2010 and 22 per cent from 2009, when the U.S. auto industry and the financial system were in peril.
Chrysler led the 2011 sales gains with a 26 per cent increase, followed by Nissan at 15 per cent, GM at 13 per cent and Ford at 11 per cent.