Automakers Gain Speed at Year-End as U.S. Shoppers Return: Cars

The U.S. auto industry is seeing demand recover faster than anticipated, with carmakers headed toward their best annual performance in three years at sales of 12.8 million vehicles.

Consumers entered this year’s final month demanding models ranging from big pickups to luxury sedans to fuel-sipping hybrids after pushing November’s sales to the fastest monthly pace since the government’s “cash for clunkers” trade-in program in August 2009. General Motors Co. (GM) and Chrysler Group LLC, two years removed from bankruptcy, have been taking share from disaster-stricken Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.

U.S. buyers are replacing their cars after delaying new- vehicle purchases as long as possible, and they are snapping up F-Series pickups and Prius hybrids as consumer confidence in the economy jumps. That means the automakers haven’t had to resort to fire-sale prices to goose demand.

“The industry has managed production levels to where demand was this year and didn’t get ahead of itself,” said Jeff Schuster, a Troy, Michigan-based analyst for LMC Automotive. “With inventory now being replenished, it’s not a situation where we’re seeing too much production or seeing heavy incentive use.”

Spending on marketing promotions averaged less than $2,700 a vehicle throughout the industry, down about $74 from a year ago, according to LMC and J.D. Power & Associates.

Consumer confidence surged in November by the most in more than eight years, and the portion of consumers planning to buy a new vehicle within six months climbed to the highest since April, data from The Conference Board showed Nov. 29.

Older Cars

The average age of cars and light trucks on the road today has risen to 10.6 years old, Jenny Lin, Ford’s senior U.S. economist, said on a Dec. 1 conference call.

“We are going to see more and more of this pent-up demand realized,” Lin told analysts and reporters.

She cited declining gasoline prices for providing “relief” to consumers, who responded with purchases of sport- utility vehicles and pickups. Sales of Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford’s SUVs climbed 29 percent and F-Series trucks increased 24 percent.

GM’s deliveries of Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups surged 34 percent and 22 percent, respectively, and Chrysler’s Jeep brand sales soared 50 percent. The average price for unleaded gasoline has dropped 71 cents, or 18 percent, to $3.28 a gallon on Dec. 3 from its peak this year on May 4, according to AAA, the nation’s largest motoring group.

Broad Demand

Consumer demand was broad-based, as Toyota (7203) and Honda boosted deliveries of smaller vehicles, making up for production lost after March 11’s tsunami and earthquake in Japan and more recent floods in Thailand disrupted their supply chains.

Toyota, Asia’s largest automaker, reported a 49 percent increase in sales of Prius hybrid models, including its new wagon variant. Deliveries of its redesigned Camry sedan climbed 13 percent to 23,440, securing its position as the top-selling car line ahead of Nissan Motor Co.’s Altima and the Ford Fusion. Toyota slashed discounts on cars by 32 percent last month, according to researcher Autodata Corp.

Honda, the only automaker among the 10 largest that didn’t have a companywide U.S. sales increase for November, still managed to boost deliveries of Civic cars by 3.4 percent. That’s the first increase since April for the Tokyo-based automaker’s top-selling model.

Among luxury brands, Daimler AG (DAI)’s November deliveries jumped 47 percent, as the brand’s year-to-date sales closed to within 1,600 of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW)’s BMW line. The two German brands are vying to replace Toyota’s Lexus, the annual luxury champ for the last 11 years, which also lost production to the March disasters.

Industry Pace

Industry sales accelerated to a 13.6 million seasonally adjusted annualized rate, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata. The pace exceeded the 13.4 million average estimate of 14 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

“The recovery is showing a little bit more resiliency than what people feared,” Paul Ballew, chief economist for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., said in a Dec. 1 phone interview. “Vehicle sales are inching their way back up to 14-, and then eventually 15- and 16-million units.”

If December matches November’s 14 percent increase in industrywide deliveries, auto sales will finish the year at 12.8 million cars and light trucks. That would exceed the 12.7 million sales total that was the average estimate of 18 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg in August.

Considering Increases

Jefferies Inc., IHS Automotive and TrueCar.com are now considering increases to their estimates for 2012 deliveries, according to analysts at the three firms.

Auto sales may total 13.5 million light vehicles next year, the average of 14 estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The industry delivered 11.6 million cars and light trucks last year, up from a 27-year low of 10.4 million in 2009.

The seasonally adjusted annualized rate for auto sales “appears to be building to a 2011 exit run-rate close to 14 million without a full Japanese supply recovery and bad economic news cycle,” Adam Jonas, a New York-based analyst for Morgan Stanley, wrote in a Dec. 1 research note. The momentum “bodes well for 2012,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Trudell in Southfield, Michigan at ctrudell1@bloomberg.net; Keith Naughton in Southfield, Michigan at knaughton3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net

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