U.S. automakers, shifting into high volume on lower interest rates, sold 40.2 percent more cars in mid-November than they did in the similar period last year.

But even with that notable performance, the companies will sell fewer cars this year than they sold in 1981, industry analysts said.

"The November sales have been much stronger than I anticipated," said David Healy, an analyst with New York-based Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. "But this year's sales will be well under those of 1981," which was the worst sales year for the domestic industry since 1961, he said.

The five automakers in the United States sold 209,917 cars between Nov. 11 and Nov. 20, compared with 149,728 sold last year. The newest mid-November sales are running at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.6 million cars, compared with an annual rate of 5 million in the year-ago period.

The bad news is in year-to-date sales, which have fallen to 5.1 million from 5.7 million since 1981.

Domestic manufacturers sold nearly 6.3 million cars last year. But Healy and other analysts expect the industry to sell a maximum of 5.8 million cars this year. That would be the worst annual performance since 1961, when 5.5 million U.S.-produced cars were sold.

"We would have to have good, strong selling periods for the rest of the year just to reach 5.8 million units," said L. Ray Windecker, an industry analyst with Ford Motor Co. "But we're moving into December. With the Christmas season and everything, that traditionally has been one of the domestic industry's worst selling months," he said.

Windecker agreed with Healy's assessment that the latest surge in sales comes mostly from lowered interest rates on leftover 1982 cars. The Big Three automakers, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp, all have retreated from rates near 17 percent and are selling at rates ranging from 10.75 to 10.9 percent.

That tactic has reduced industrywide inventory to a 69-day supply of cars, compared with an 81-day supply in the year-ago period, Healy said.

Here are the latest company-by-company car sales, by company rank in the domestic industry:

* GM -- up 56.6 percent, from 89,707 last mid-November to 140,457 this year.

* Ford -- up 18 percent, from 37,001 to 43,658.

* Chrysler -- up 15.3 percent, from 17,089 to 19,696, despite the shutdown of its five Canadian plants.

* American Motors Corp. -- up 11.7 percent, from 3,582 to 4,000.

* Volkswagen of America -- down 10.3 percent, to 2,106 from 2,349.