GM's full-sized Chevrolet Silverado (shown) and GMC Sierra pickups combined to post a 7% increase in total sales in January. Image source: General Motors

General Motors (GM -0.17%) said on Tuesday that its U.S. sales rose 0.5% in January, as a 9% increase in retail sales helped overcome more subdued results in its fleet-sales operations.

Why the retail-versus-fleet sales distinction is important
GM has taken to breaking out "retail" and "fleet" gains in its press releases, although it doesn't release separate sales numbers for the two categories. The distinction is important to GM: The company has been gradually reducing its sales to rental-car fleets, while working to win more commercial-fleet sales (Learn why here.). The latter tend to be more profitable, but they can vary wildly from month to month.

GM wants people to know that it has moved away from "old GM's" habit of using big deliveries to rental-car fleets to boost its sales numbers. Those sales numbers looked good, but profits on those sales were always very thin, and GM's residual values suffered from the sheer numbers of lightly used rental cars in the used-car marketplace. GM said on Tuesday that it expects fleet sales (of all kinds) to represent about 20% of its total U.S. sales in 2016, down from its historical 22% to 24% range.

The other point that GM wants to make is that despite headline sales numbers that are sometimes unimpressive, it is making real gains in sales to retail customers, where it has historically lagged import-brand rivals. That's a result of the much-improved competitiveness of GM's latest products.

In January, on a retail basis, GM wants investors to know:

  • Chevrolet-brand sales rose 12%, and Chevrolet's retail market share rose almost two percentage points. (GM's overall U.S. market share, including fleet sales, slipped 0.2 percentage points to 17.6% in 2015.)
  • Chevrolet had its best January for passenger-car (retail) sales since 1997, thanks to big sales of its new-for-2016 Malibu sedan (up 24%) and a nice start for its new 2016 Camaro coup (up 11%).
  • Buick-brand sales rose 45%.

Meanwhile, when it comes to fleet sales, GM wants investors to know:

  • Commercial-fleet sales rose 6%, making 27 consecutive months of year-over-year gains.
  • GM's commercial-fleet sales have grown 38% since 2013.
  • GM's deliveries to rental-car fleets declined by almost 13,000 units in January versus January 2015. That was a planned decline, and GM expects its rental-car deliveries to continue to decline in 2016.

So what's the bad news?

The bad news: Cadillac is still lagging
There really isn't a whole lot, aside from the continued struggles of GM's Cadillac luxury brand in its home market. (Overall) Cadillac sales were down 8%, but if you know the context it's not surprising. GM has committed to a long-term effort to shift the brand to a higher price (and status) tier. Its latest products are extremely good, but they're considerably more expensive than the models they replace. Some of Cadillac's longtime customers have been priced out, but the brand will need more time to win new ones.

Critics love the latest Cadillac CTS sedan. But it's more expensive than the car it replaced, and it has struggled to draw buyers. Image source: General Motors

On the upside, GM said that Cadillac currently has the highest average transaction prices in its history. Put another way, Cadillac has better vehicles, and its making more money on each sale -- but it's making fewer sales right now. I suspect GM is willing to accept that trade-off, for the moment.

The upshot: A good month for the General
GM's big profit-generators -- its SUVs, crossovers, and full-size pickups -- all had a good month in January. Analysts have been concerned that the U.S. new-vehicle market might struggle to generate growth over its record 2015 performance. But at least at retail, GM is showing that there's still some sales growth to be had in this cycle.