2009 Auto Sales: Have We Hit Bottom Dead Center, Yet?

January 5, 2010
Bianchi Honda Dealership in Erie, Penn.

Bianchi Honda Dealership in Erie, Penn.

As the auto industry prepares for another year of auto shows, new-car introductions and crossed fingers, sales numbers for 2009 will be announced today, by most major automakers.

The question rolling around in CEO offices from Tokyo to Stuttgart to Detroit: have we hit bottom dead center yet?

It's been a rollercoaster ride in the auto industry since the hale and hearty days of 2005. In that year, the industry clocked 16.9 million sales in the U.S. It's been a downward spiral ever since, with a low spot in 2008 of 13.2 million sales guaranteed to be beaten by this year's estimated 11.4 million sales of light trucks and passenger cars.

Some analysts see a slight uptick in December sales as good news--but many, like Edmunds.com CEO Jeremy Anwyl, see the slight bounce as a mixed signal. The automotive-pricing Web site predicts sales in December will reach an annualized rate of 11.7 million units, but Anwyl says that could be due to bargain hunters poaching deals on low-priced vehicles from brands going out of business--like GM's Saab, Saturn and HUMMER units--and from vehicles left over from the disastrous 2009 model year of sales.

Still, the sales rate would mean consumers have some confidence, no matter how slight, in the economy. If the numbers hold as automakers release sales figures, it could result in the best sales month since December of 2008, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The slight rise could be a passing blip, however, warns Barclays Capital analysts, who told the Journal that more sales across the board could mean automakers are ramping up sales of fleet cars--typically, less well-equipped, less-expensive models sold to rental car companies, government agencies and other bulk buyers.

Analysts are watching carefully to measure how many sales will be recorded, the Journal reports--but more importantly, which buyers are actually signing on the bottom line.

2009 sales: clunkers help Subaru, while Chrysler, Scion and Suzuki bleed

With final figures due today from most automakers, only a trio of brands can claim good news in the 2009 sales figures. All other car companies and brands reported losses--most of them, double-digit losses.

Through November 2009, the list of companies with lower year-to-year sales includes GM, off 32 percent; Toyota, down 24 percent; Chrysler, down 38 percent; Ford, down 20 percent; Honda, down 20 percent; Nissan, down 22 percent; VW, down 7; Daimler, down 19 percent; and BMW, down 23 percent.At the brand level, GM's HUMMER brand watched sales roll off a cliff and fall 66 percent; fellow orphan brand Saab will end the year off 61 percent or more; and Suzuki, Scion and Chrysler will report sales falling in the 50-percent range for all of 2009 when they file sales numbers today.

The bright spots are few: Hyundai sales were up 6 percent through November, and sister company Kia's sales grew even more in 2009, up 8 percent.

Subaru's stellar performance in 2009 ended with record December sales and a year-to-year rise of 15 percent. According to spokesman Mike McHale, it's for a perfect storm of good reasons-- the right product, the right price, and the right time, he notes. Subaru also benefited hugely from the government's Cash for Clunkers trade-in program; almost all its "conquest" sales, from buyers new to the brand, came from former owners of big trucks.

2009 sales: surprising stability

With almost universal sales declines, some individual models fell, predictably--while others posted unexpected gains. A cross-section of sales through November holds some surprises:

Ford F-Series : Ford expected to sell a million F-Series trucks at some point in the past decade. This year, with 365,416 sold through November of 2009, they may pass 400,000 sales.

Kia Borrego: Kia launched the full-size Borrego SUV in late 2008 and expected to sell 20,000 a year; they sold 9510 copies through November of 2009, with only 825 moved in November. As a result, the Borrego's not in the 2010 lineup, and may not return.

Buick Enclave: The big, handsome crossover from Buick has been well-received, and sales held up reasonably well. GM sold 37,701 through November of 2009, versus 41,416 Enclaves in the first 11 months of 2008.

Toyota Camry: The best-selling sedan in America last year, the Camry and Camry Hybrid clocked more than 400,000 sales in 2008. Toyota should barely pass 350,000 sales of the combined models in 2009.

Dodge Journey: New for 2009, the Journey hasn't been well-reviewed--but sales rose in the first 11 months of 2009 to 46,954 units, from 42,822 units in the first 11 months of 2008. The Journey, however, was not on sale in January of 2008.

Volkswagen Jetta: VW's compact sedan is due to be replaced in 2011--and yet sales were up to 98,194 units through November 2009, up from 89,398 units through November of 2008.

Toyota Prius: The world's best-selling hybrid is hitting a soft patch like other conventional cars. This past year, through November, Toyota sold 127,907 Prius hatchbacks, down from 151,025 sales in the first 11 months of 2008.

Whatever the root, it seems car sales have hit a firm patch. Edmunds.com analysts expect that 11.5 million cars and light trucks will be sold in 2010.

[Automotive News; Edmunds; Wall Street Journal]

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