The 1981 models and the beginnings of economic recovery have brought welcome relief to many of Washington's auto dealers after the rigors of recession earlier in the year.

A sampling of dealers interviewed yesterday reported a distinct improvement in sales since the summer, and dealers said that sales of 1981 models are going very well so far.

The real fasting time for the auto industry will not come until spring, however. By then, it will be clearer whether the new, smaller cars, which domestic automakers hope will attract consumers away from imports, have been successful. But the early indications are favorable, or so the dealers claim.

Chrysler is in a special position. "Everybody is enthusiastic about the K car," said Steve Brodell, an Anacostia Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. His view was echoed by a non-Chrysler dealer who preferred not to be quoted. The K car had the advantage of an enormous amount of publicity in the press before it was finally available, and this seems to have had a marked effect on sales. The company has reported that K-car sales in the first 10 days were the best of any model ever and 20 percent up on last year.

"A lot of people who haven't been in a Chrysler showroom for a long time" are coming in to see the car which has been billed as the last hope for Chrysler's survival, Brodell said. "We have waited a long time" for the K car, he added. The public's "excellent response" is clearly gratifying.

Ford dealers do not seem to be having as much success. The Escort is "going real well," said John Fe, sales manager of Koons Ford. He qualified this, saying that the Escort would be selling faster if dealers offered discounts.

Fe hopes that the present resistance among Ford dealers in the area to offering discounts will continue. "If every dealer does that it will be successful," he said, adding that the Japanese dealers had shown that cars could be sold at list price. "We should not go into a panic and start cutting prices" if sales are not strong. Fe claimed that the Escort would sell as well as the X car introduced by General Motors last year.

But the Escort is noticeably smaller than the X and K cars. Ford does not offer a new, medium-sized, front-wheel-drive car. Koons' best-selling cars are the Mustang and the Fairmont, Fe said. Sales are "super right now" he added, and remarked that because they had run down inventories this year and demand was up they had much lower stocks than last year. But there was no problem in getting models from Ford.

There were rumors among Ford dealers that the Chrysler figures on K car sales were misleading, Fe commented. He said they apparently included sales of cars which had not yet been produced or delivered.

A Lincoln Mercury dealer in the area, who would not give his name, said that the new small Lynx car, the same size as the Escort, was "selling very well." In the last two weeks however, he said sales of large cars had picked up so that they were now running about even with small cars.

Other dealers agreed that there is still demand for large cars. Manufacturers have pushed up the prices on small cars more rapidly than on large models, said John Pohanka, president of Pohanka Oldsmobile-GMC Inc. He believes some of the larger models such as the Cutlass are a better value.

The over-40-year-olds who care about safety and comfort and can afford what is often only an extra $150 to $200 a year in running a car are tending to go for the bigger models, Barry Covington of Covington-Buick commented. "Younger customers want a small car because it's a small car," he said. "People think that small means economical," but the difference both in purchase price and running costs can be very small, he added.

Covington claimed that his customers were surprised at how expensive the K car was, compared to other compacts. But Brodell said that at $5,800 for the basic model the car was priced below GM's Omega.

Both Pohanka and Brodell complained of difficulties in getting stocks.