Fiat Chrysler, GM Lead Sales Gains for Strong End to 2014

General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and other major automakers reported rising vehicles sales in the U.S. in December, capping the best year since 2006 thanks to cheap fuel and low interest rates.

While all of the biggest automakers reported gains in the month, only GM and Nissan Motor Co. did better than analysts had predicted. The market’s shift to light trucks, which outsold cars in every month of the year for the first time since 2004, played to the strengths of GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, such as their sport-utility vehicles and large pickups. Shoppers last year were undeterred by record recalls, mostly of older models.

“It’s a very good sales month,” said Maryann Keller, an independent automotive consultant in Stamford, Connecticut. “The biggest challenge for this year will be sustaining the sales pace. We will see more incentives this year and they will be much more visible to consumers.”

Automakers and analysts project that sales will rise again in 2015 for an unprecedented sixth straight year as the strengthening job market, available credit and the lowest gasoline prices in more than half a decade bolstered consumer confidence. Light-vehicle sales may total 16.7 million, Toyota Motor Corp. said on a conference call, adding that there’s “room for upside” to that forecast.

December Rate

The annualized selling rate, adjusted for seasonal trends, was 16.9 million, according to researcher Autodata Corp., matching the average of 13 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The tally is down slightly from November’s 17.2 million, but still the third-fastest pace of the year. A year earlier, the pace was 15.5 million.

Dealers last month sold 1.51 million cars and light trucks, according to the Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based researcher. That topped the 1.5 million predicted by the average of seven analysts’ estimates. The full-year total was 16.5 million, 58 percent more than in 2009, when General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC restructured in bankruptcy. Light-vehicle sales in the U.S. averaged 16.8 million from 2000 to 2007. The record, set in 2000, was 17.4 million.

GM’s 274,483 sales produced a 19 percent gain, compared with analysts’ forecast of 13 percent. Detroit-based GM was helped by light trucks, with its GMC brand posting a 23 percent gain including a 31 percent rise in Yukon large SUV sales and a 38 percent jump for the mid-size Terrain SUV. Chevrolet had strong sales for its Silverado pickup and Tahoe large SUV. Buick led the way with a 32 percent increase, which was pushed by 20 percent cash-back discounts on its cars. Cadillac was its only brand that didn’t grow, sliding 11 percent for the month.

Ford’s light-vehicle sales rose 1.3 percent, less than the 2.8 percent increase projected by analysts. Its gains were held back by slower sales of its three top models. F-Series pickup sales fell slightly amid reduced production during the factory conversion to making an F-150 truck with an all-aluminum body. Sales of every Ford brand car except for the Mustang fell last month.

Ford fell 3.9 percent to close at $14.76. GM slid 1.5 percent to $34.33, while Fiat Chrysler dropped 3.8 percent to $11.25 amid a broad sell-off of equities.

Chrysler 200

FCA US sold 193,261 cars and trucks last month, up 20 percent for December and giving full-year sales a 16 percent boost on its way to gaining the most market share. Analysts had estimated a jump of 23 percent last month.

Chrysler brand sales rose 53 percent, led by the new 200 family sedan, which nearly tripled deliveries, to 16,229. It was the brand’s best December in seven years.

Jeep sales jumped 19 percent to 63,274, powered by the Cherokee, Grand Cherokee and the Wrangler. Ram pickups soared 32 percent to 44,222. For the year, Ram pickup sales jumped 24 percent to 439,789.

“Our best December sales in a decade pushed our full-year sales over the 2 million unit threshold for our best annual sales since 2006,” said Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales for the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based unit. “Last year marked our fifth-consecutive year of annual sales growth in the U.S., and once again, we were the fastest-growing automaker in the country.”

FCA US has now reported rising sales for 57 consecutive months under Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne, and dealers are feeling good.

David Kelleher added 9,800 square feet of showroom floor and service space at his FCA US dealership near Philadelphia last year to keep up with sales that rose more than he forecasted. He’s adding as many as six salespeople.

Nissan Strong

Nissan and Infiniti brands combined to sell 117,318 models last month for a 6.9 percent gain that topped the average estimate for a 6 percent rise. Full-year sales rose 11 percent to 1.39 million, led by a 12 percent increase in deliveries for the namesake brand.

“Nissan had its all-time best year on the strength of our core vehicles -- Altima, Sentra, Versa and Rogue, as well as Nissan Leaf, which had the best-ever year for any plug-in vehicle in the industry,” said Fred Diaz, Nissan’s senior vice president for U.S. sales, marketing and operations. “We expect low gas prices and high consumer confidence to be the magic formula that continues to bring more buyers into dealer showrooms.”

Honda sales rose 1.5 percent, less than the 6.3 percent increase predicted by analysts.

Honda finished the year with 1.54 million vehicle sales, a 1 percent increase. Sales by the company’s namesake brand rose 1 percent with an 11 percent increase in compact Fit sales and 10 percent growth in sales of CR-V compact sport-utility vehicles. Deliveries by the premium Acura climbed 1.5 percent as the TLX sedan replaced the mid-size TL and MDX SUV sales rose 24 percent.

Toyota deliveries rose 13 percent, just shy of the 14 percent gain projected by analysts. Corolla sales rose 34 percent last month while Camry deliveries climbed 5.5 percent. For the year, Camry sales added 4.9 percent for a total of 428,606, making it the top-selling car in the U.S. for a 13th straight year. The company’s SUV sales rose 16 percent last year with strong demand for the Highlander and for the Lexus RX.

Combined sales by Seoul-based affiliates Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. rose 14 percent, more than doubling the 6.7 percent gain projected by analysts. Deliveries by Volkswagen AG’s VW and Audi brands rose a combined 4.4 percent, less than the 6.1 percent increase projected by the analysts.

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