More Canadians treated themselves to a new car or truck last year than in 2010 as low interest rates and pent up demand helped fuel a nearly two per cent growth in auto sales.

Automakers sold 1.59 million vehicles in 2011, up from 1.56 million in 2010, according to data released Wednesday by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.

Here are the top five automakers, based on their 2011 unit sales:

  • Ford — 275,850
  • General Motors — 242,815
  • Chrysler —  229,624
  • Toyota — 148,896
  • Hyundai — 129,240

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.   

Import vehicles captured slightly more market share than their domestic counterparts, holding steady with 2010 figures at about 53 per cent of the market.   

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.

Car sales up 14%   

Full-year car sales were up 14 per cent, driven by strong demand for the Ford Fiesta. And the company said its F-Series pickup truck was the top-selling vehicle in Canada.   

"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.   

It has been working to make even its classic F-Series trucks more fuel efficient, 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.

GM sees decline   

General Motors Canada however, disappointed with a 1.7 per cent decline in 2011 and a 9.4 per cent drop from last December.   

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.   

Toyota Canada sales climbed a whopping 41.8 per cent in December to 12,291, but sales still fell 5.6 per cent from 2010 levels.   

Honda Canada said its Civic remained Canada's best-selling car for the 14th straight year, despite a double digit plunge in overall sales.   

"This past year was incredibly challenging because of the Japan earthquake and tsunami in March and the Thailand flood in October,"  said Jerry Chenkin, executive vice-president of Honda Canada Inc.   

"Combined, these two disasters resulted in significantly reduced production due to parts shortages for more than half of the year. Especially hard hit was the new 2012 Civic, which had just launched and was seriously affected by a severe parts shortage for more than half of the year."   

Honda said the parts shortages were responsible for a 12 per cent decline in annual sales of Hondas and Acuras to 123,121 units.   

Honda said about 96 per cent of the vehicles it sold in Canada were produced at its North American assembly plants, up from 91 per cent in 2010.   

Hyundai Canada, a Korean automaker that is quickly 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.   

On Tuesday, Volkswagen Canada said it had its best-ever sales year in 2011, beating the previous record set in 2010 by 16 per cent. The company said it sold 3,565 cars last month, pushing the full year total to 52,604.   

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.