U.S. Automakers Accelerate at End of Best Sales Year Since 2008

GM, Ford, Chrysler December U.S. Vehicle Sales Surpass
Ford Motor Co. 2012 Focus vehicles move down the assemby line at the company's Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne on Dec. 14, 2011. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., and Chrysler Group LLC finished 2011 stronger than analysts predicted, as annual U.S. auto sales reached 12.8 million in the best year since 2008, when GM and Chrysler sought U.S. bailouts.

Auto sales increased as consumer confidence reached an eight-month high in December, and carmakers aired holiday ads and continued promotions started in November. The U.S. automakers rallied in 2011, two years after GM and Chrysler emerged from U.S.-backed bankruptcies. GM also reclaimed the top spot in world vehicle sales from Toyota Motor Corp.

“It’s been a phenomenal turnaround for the Big Three,” Michelle Krebs, an analyst with researcher Edmunds.com, said in an interview. “Chrysler and GM have the American taxpayer to thank for that, but in the end, it’s been a good investment.”

The 12.8 million figure for 2011 industrywide sales is an estimate by Autodata Corp. because not all automakers had reported results, the Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based company said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

Sales dropped 18 percent in 2008 to 13.2 million, the worst since 1992. In November 2008, the U.S. automaker chief executive officers and UAW President Ron Gettelfinger went to Washington to seek U.S. assistance and were criticized for flying there in corporate jets.

For 2011, industrywide sales rose 10 percent while the December sales rate was 13.6 million, Autodata said. That beat the 13.4 million rate forecast by the average estimate of 14 analysts, up from the 12.5 million pace a year earlier.

Market Share Gain

GM, Ford and Chrysler all gained share in 2011, ending the year controlling a combined 47.1 percent of the U.S. market, up from 45.2 percent in 2010, according to Autodata. For Ford, it was the third consecutive year of U.S. market share gains. Chrysler had the largest gain, rising to 10.7 percent of the market last year from 9.4 percent in 2010.

GM sold 2.5 million cars and light trucks in the U.S. last year, up 13 percent from 2010. In December, GM’s sales rose 4.5 percent to 234,351, topping the average 4.4 percent gain of eight estimates.

Ford’s U.S. light-vehicle sales rose 11 percent in 2011 to 2.14 million. In December, Ford’s sales of cars and light trucks rose 10 percent to 209,447, exceeding the average estimate for a 7.7 percent gain.

Chrysler’s 2011 sales soared 26 percent to 1.37 million. Chrysler’s December sales jumped 37 percent to 138,019 cars and light trucks, more than the average 33 percent estimate.

Toyota and Nissan Motor Co. also exceeded estimates.

‘High Note’

“The year ended on a high note,” said Krebs, who is based in West Bloomfield, Michigan. “That bodes well going into 2012.”

The economy expanded in the final three months of 2011 at a 2.8 percent annual rate, the strongest since the second quarter of 2010, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg early last month. Employers added 120,000 jobs in November, helping push down the jobless rate to 8.6 percent, the lowest since March 2009.

Toyota, Asia’s largest automaker, said it sold 1.64 million cars and light trucks in the U.S. last year, down 6.7 percent. In December, sales of Toyota, Lexus and Scion models increased 0.4 percent in the U.S. from a year ago to 178,131 vehicles. That topped an expected 1 percent decline for the month, the average of five analysts’ estimates.

Honda, Nissan

Honda Motor Co., Japan’s third-largest automaker, said yesterday its U.S. sales last year fell 6.8 percent to 1.15 million cars and light trucks. In December, sales of its Honda and Acura brands fell 19 percent from a year ago to 105,230 vehicles. That was worse than the 15 percent average of five analysts’ estimates for the December decline.

Nissan’s 2011 sales in the U.S. rose 15 percent to 1.04 million light vehicles. In December, Nissan’s deliveries rose 7.7 percent to 100,927, which topped the 5 percent gain predicted by the average of five analysts.

Nissan, based in Yokohama, Japan, was less affected than Toyota and Honda by natural disasters last year, including March’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan and October flooding in Thailand.

GM, based in Detroit, finished the year with a 53 percent increase in sales of the Cruze small car and a 12 percent rise in sales of Silverado pickups in December.

The company said industry sales have room to expand this year.

Caution Voiced

“We’re still in recession-like industry size,” Don Johnson, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales operations, said yesterday during a conference call with analysts. “The growth we’re seeing is still based on” a slow increase in jobs, he said.

One sector where employment is expanding is the auto industry, where companies announced plans last year to hire or rehire at least 25,000 workers in the U.S. by 2015.

Ford’s passenger car sales fell 15 percent in December, while sport-utility vehicle sales rose 16 percent, the company said. Ford brand sales for 2011 were above 2 million for the first time since 2007, the Dearborn, Michigan-based company said last week.

Sales of Ford’s Explorer SUV rose 37 percent and its F-Series pickup gained 24 percent. Fusion, the company’s top-selling car, decreased 4.5 percent and its Fiesta small car was down 30 percent.

Ford’s Forecast

Ford yesterday forecast industrywide U.S. vehicle sales this year in a range from 13.5 million to 14.5 million, including about 200,000 medium and heavy trucks. That suggests auto sales growth of as much as 11.5 percent this year.

“The momentum coming out of the fourth quarter of last year provides some confidence that the lower end of this range is less likely,” Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, Ford’s chief economist, said on a conference call with analysts yesterday. On “economic data, the latest incoming statistics show some very positive momentum.”

Auburn Hills, Michigan-based Chrysler’s Jeep brand had a 41 percent increase, which included gains of 36 percent for Grand Cherokee and 39 percent for Wrangler SUVs.

The results “are really a great sign for Chrysler,” said Rebecca Lindland, a Norwalk, Connecticut-based analyst for IHS Automotive. “It’s a company that’s struggled in the past more than others.”

‘Signs of Recovery’

Chrysler had a target of boosting 2011 vehicle sales by 45 percent to 1.57 million vehicles. Chrysler’s full-year deliveries rose 26 percent to 1.37 million.

Volkswagen AG’s VW brand sales rose 36 percent to 32,502 last month compared with a year ago, making it the brand’s best December since 1972, the company said yesterday in a statement.

“We believe the industry continues to show signs of recovery and consumers generally recognizing it is a good time to be out there buying vehicles,” Jonathan Browning, head of Volkswagen’s U.S. operations, said in a conference call yesterday.

Hyundai Motor Co., South Korea’s largest automaker, said its 2011 U.S. sales rose 20 percent to 645,691 cars and light trucks. In December, Hyundai’s sales gained 13 percent to 50,765. Kia Motors Corp., Hyundai’s affiliate, reported a 36 percent sales increase in 2011 to 485,492 cars and light trucks. In December, Kia rose 43 percent compared with a year ago.

Combined U.S. sales for Hyundai and Kia in 2011 gained 26 percent to a record 1.13 million cars and light trucks, topping Nissan’s 1.04 million.

Canadian sales of light vehicles rose 2.6 percent in December from a year earlier, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc. of Toronto.

Sales increased to 114,557 units during the month, from 111,661 in December 2010, DesRosiers said in an e-mailed report yesterday. Sales for all of 2011 rose 1.8 percent to 1.59 million.



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