Ford Motor's December sales leaped an adjusted 23.3 percent, far outpacing industry forecasts for the U.S. automaker, while sales at General Motors declined 12.8 percent, slightly worse than expected.
Ford's sales gain allowed it to end 2009 on an upswing after a year that saw GM and Chrysler collapse into bankruptcy and China overtake the United States as the biggest car market.
Ford sold a total of 184,655 vehicles last month, up from 139,067 in the same month last year.
CNBC reports monthly auto sales on an adjusted basis that accounts for the number of selling days in the month. On that basis, analysts were expecting Ford sales to rise 8.3 percent.
Ford said that last year it posted its first full-year market share gain since 1995. December also marks the 14th time in 15 months that Ford increased retail market share, the company said.
Shares of Ford swapped hands for as much as $11.21 Friday. The stock had not topped $11 since 2005.
The stock has gained 55 percent in a rally since early November and has more than quadrupled in value over the past year as investors bet that the No. 2 U.S. automaker would steer clear of the federal bailouts that wiped out equity in its domestic rivals.
"It surprised us that December was as strong as it was, not just for Ford but the industry, I think, surprised on the upside for the month," said George Pipas, Ford's chief sales analyst, told CNBC.
But Pipas acknowledged that 2009 was a very tough one for automakers.
"Who could have predicted such a historic year for the automobile industry? The events that transpired that we had to cover and keep our eye on this year—I'm kind of glad to put the year behind us," Pipas said.
Meanwhile, GM sold a total of 208,511 vehicles in December, down from 221,983 in the same month of 2008. The adjusted decline of 12.8 percent was worse than the 9 percent industry watchers had expected out of the automobile manufacturer.
GM said the wind-down of its "non-core brands"—Pontiac, Saturn, Saab and Hummer—is 10 months ahead of schedule. Those brands represented 9 percent of retail sales in December, compared with 15 percent in May 2009.
The world's biggest automaker, Toyota Motor, also closed December on an up note, selling 23 percent more vehicles in the United States than it did in the year prior.
Toyota sold 187,860 vehicles in December, up from 141,949 in December of 2008.
Also Friday, Chrysler reported December sales that fell 10.5 percent on an adjusted basis, slightly better than expectations. The embattled company sold 86,523 units, versus 89,813 a year ago.
The privately held automaker, which sold a total of 931,000 cars and trucks last year, said 2009 was its worst for sales since 1962.
Bad Year for Industry, but Momentum in Place
Ford, Chrysler, GM, Honda Motor , Nissan Motor , and Toyota saw sharp declines for the year, but all said they had momentum to start 2010.
For most, 2009 was a rough year as credit froze, the economy and consumer confidence faltered and unemployment rose. U.S. sales for the full-year are expected to be their worst in nearly 30 years.
Sales of smaller, cheaper vehicles, however, helped drive gains for some manufacturers. Hyundai continued its surge with an 8-percent yearly gain, while its low-cost Kia brand reported 2009 sales gains of nearly 10 percent and a 44-percent gain in December.
Japanese automaker Subaru, which reported a 15 percent sales gain for the year, called 2009 an unqualified success.
After adjusting for population, U.S. auto sales suffered their deepest decline since World War Two in 2009. Full-year sales are expected to be just above 10.3 million vehicles, down 40 percent from where the industry began the decade in 2000.
In a historic reversal, vehicle sales in China surged to overtake the U.S. market as the world's largest in 2009.
With a final sales tally due later this week, analysts expect China sales to have soared 44 percent to 13.5 million units in 2009. Slower growth is projected for this year.
Meanwhile, major automakers are betting that the U.S. market is poised for a gradual but steady rebound this year and next and have set production plans higher for the current quarter to restock inventories.
U.S. auto sales on average are expected to come in above an 11 million unit annualized sales rate in December. That would represent the best sales month of 2009 excluding July and August when U.S. government trade-in incentives gave sales a temporary boost through the "cash for clunkers" program.