DETROIT -- Strong sales in December capped off a great year for U.S. carmakers -- especially Chrysler -- and 2012 should be even better.

For their biggest Japanese rivals, a year of natural disasters and other struggles ended on a sour note, with U.S. sales falling and the outlook for this year just as challenging.

Chrysler, in the midst of a comeback after its 2009 trip through bankruptcy court, said Wednesday that sales surged 37 percent in December and 26 percent for all of 2011.

Demand was particularly strong for the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Chrysler 200. Chrysler catapulted itself ahead of Honda as the fourth-largest automaker by U.S. sales.

General Motors and Ford ended the year with more modest double-digit percentage gains. Analysts said U.S. car sales rose for the second year in a row as buyers' confidence in the economy picked up, their aging vehicles wore down and their ability to take out inexpensive loans improved.

U.S. auto sales rose 10 percent to 12.8 million in 2011, up 22 percent from 2009, when the U.S. auto industry and the financial system were in peril.

November and December were the strongest months of the year for U.S. auto sales, and analysts expect the momentum to continue into 2012. Improving employment numbers, low interest rates and demand to replace older cars all should boost 2012 sales.

GM's December sales rose 5 percent, resulting in a 13 percent bump for the year, while Ford's December sales climbed 10 percent, closing out an 11 percent gain for 2011.

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Nissan, which recovered more quickly than its rivals from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, was the only major Japanese automaker to sell more cars in the U.S. in 2011 than it did in 2010.

Its sales surged nearly 8 percent in December and 15 percent for the year. Nissan also sold about 2,000 more Leaf electric cars than GM's Chevrolet Volt in the cars' first full year on the market.

For Honda and Toyota, 2011 was a disappointing year. They couldn't get enough cars and trucks to U.S. dealers because of Japan's disasters and flooding in Thailand. Toyota said Wednesday that it doesn't expect its inventory to be at normal levels until March.