Sales landmarks: Year’s strongest month; Ford overtakes Toyota; Camaro sets pace

DETROIT — U.S. light vehicle sales rose to their highest level of the year in December, closing out 2010 at 11.6 million units and carrying momentum into a 2011 that is forecast to expand a sluggish recovery.

Automakers sold 1,144,840 units in December, up 11 percent from a year earlier, and eclipsing May’s 1,103,084 sales as the best month in 2010. Over the past decade, December is on average the fourth strongest sales month of the year. Sales momentum built gradually in 2010 after demand plunged to a 27-year low of 10.4 million in 2009.

December also boasted a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate of 12.6, as measured by Autodata Corp. That was the third straight month above 12 million and the highest SAAR since the U.S. cash-for-clunkers incentive in summer 2009.

Every auto group except Toyota Motor Sales posted gains in December, led by a 37 percent increase at Hyundai-Kia Automotive and a 28 percent advance at Nissan North America.

December sales strength pushed the year’s total to 11,590,274 units, slightly higher than the 11.5 million consensus forecast by analysts.

Ford Motor Co. is forecasting 2011 light vehicle sales will rise to between 12.3 and 13.3 million units. General Motors Co. is forecasting 12.8 million to 13.3 million in 2011.

“The incoming [economic] indicators are supporting ongoing improvements in consumer spending,” Ford Chief Economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick said today.

GM sales boss Don Johnson sees 2011 auto sales picking up the pace in the second half.

“We expect the extension of tax cuts and unemployment benefits will help propel consumer spending,” he said.

Ford moves up; Nissan thwarts Hyundai-Kia

Ford Motor replaced Toyota Motor Sales as the No. 2 U.S. automaker, while a big December by Nissan North America kept Hyundai-Kia Automotive from capturing the No. 6 spot.

Ford’s move up has been widely anticipated as Toyota’s massive safety recalls slammed sales and Ford has gained volume all year. Ford 2010 group sales jumped 17 percent to 1,964,059 units, while a 6 percent decline in December pushed the Toyota group into negative territory at 1,763,595 units, down 0.4 percent for the year. The 12-month swing was almost 300,000 units. In 2009, Toyota outsold Ford 1.77 million to 1.68 million.

Hyundai-Kia failed to outsell Nissan-Infiniti after leading by 4,410 through November. In December, Nissan group sold 93,730 units, up 28 percent, while Hyundai-Kia sold 75,246 units. Nissan ended with 908,570 sales to Hyundai-Kia’s 894,496.

General Motors remains the top-selling automaker, up 7 percent to 2.2 million. It joins No. 4 American Honda Motor Co. — also up 7 percent — as the major players to increase unit sales but lose market share by underperforming the industry.

Four big companies finished as big winners, closely bunched on a percentage-gain basis. Ford and Chrysler Group gained 17 percent, Nissan sales rose 18 percent and Hyundai-Kia was up 22 percent.

Two measures of GM

How did General Motors do last year? Either top notch or below industry average, depending on how you count.

By conventional measures, GM’s U.S. sales rose 7 percent to 2,211,699 million light vehicles, below the industry’s 11 percent increase. GM added volume, but lost market share.

But GM prefers to count continuing operations, excluding the four brands it sold or killed in 2009 from the sales comparison. For GM’s four surviving brands, 2010 sales jumped 22 percent to 2,199,399 units.

Some perspective: By either count, GM’s 2009 and 2010 U.S. sales are still lower than in any year since 1952, when it sold 1,996, 205 units. GM’s 2010 sales are less than a third of its 1978 peak of 6.9 million.

On the positive side: 2010 marked GM’s fist year-over-year U.S. gain since 1999.

North American-built vehicles rally

Vehicles assembled in North America picked up 2.5 points of market share, finishing 2010 with 76.4 percent of the U.S. light vehicle market.

In 2009, North American-built vehicles held 73.9 percent of the market. But as the Detroit 3 rebound and overseas-based manufacturers shift production to combat a weak U.S. dollar and rising foreign production costs, output is rising in North America.

In 2010, sales of Japan-built vehicles lost 1.7 points of share to 12.1 percent. Korean-built vehicle sales fell 0.7 point to 4.8 percent of the market as Hyundai and Kia factories in the United States reached full operational speed.

Ford F-series reigns again

The Ford F-series pickup is once again the best-selling U.S. nameplate, finishing 2010 with 528,349 sales, up 28 percent from 2009.

The F-series not only widened its lead over the No. 2 nameplate, the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, but it also finished ahead of the combined 499,929 sales of the Silverado and cousin GMC Sierra.

Town & Country outpaces Odyssey

The Chrysler Town & Country recaptured the U.S. minivan sales crown, outselling the Honda Odyssey 112,275 to 108,182 last year.

Pony cars: Camaro outsells Mustang

December sales were fewer than 200 units apart, but the Chevrolet Camaro outsold the Ford Mustang by 7,583 units in 2010: 81,299 to 73,716. Since Chevrolet re-established the nameplate in the spring of 2009, the Camaro has run ahead of the Mustang most months and finished fewer than 5,000 units behind the Ford pony car in 2009 despite having been on sale for only part of the year.

Camry best selling car, again

The Toyota Camry once again is the best-selling car in the U.S. market, outselling No. 2 Honda Accord for the ninth straight year. The Accord last won in 2001. Toyota sold 327,804 Camrys last year, down 8 percent from 2009. Honda sold 311,381 Accords, up 7 percent from 2009.

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