A Strong December Closes Out 2011 Car Sales

January 4, 2012

As automakers are reporting December 2011 sales, a recovery that began early last year seems to be growing more steady, and stronger.

Each of the Big Three automakers--Ford (NYSE:F), General Motors (NYSE: GM) and Chrysler--reported sales increases for the month and for the year, as retail vehicle sales bested levels last seen in the depths of the financial crisis. Asian automakers are yet to file their numbers, but with Korea's Hyundai and Kia and Japan's Subaru likely setting annual sales records, only Toyota and Honda, the companies most affected by the March earthquake, may be poised to break rank.

Total light-vehicle sales for 2011 are expected to come in at nearly 12.8 million units, with 10.3 million of those sold to retail customers. In December alone, the retail-sales figures should top one million units; according to J.D. Power and Associates, that would be a first since August of 2009, when Cash for Clunkers drove demand temporarily out of recession.

Power now expects 2012 sales to rise to 13.8 million units, with retail sales accounting for 11.7 million of those.

"Next year, the automotive industry will look to build upon the strong finish to 2011," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive, in a release. "But the real test in 2012 will be weathering a summer selling slowdown and posting a full year of a progressive recovery."

Those numbers are in line with most automakers' expectations, including those of General Motors. However, Ford's range puts 2012 sales volumes somewhere between 13.5 million and 14.5 million units--hedged against political uncertainty in an election year, but still a signal that the year ahead could be a good one.

The numbers for 2011, and for the final month of last year:

General Motors: GM (NYSE: GM) says each of its brands increased sales in 2011. Cadillac grew slowest, at 3.7 percent and 152,389 units, while Buick was up 14.3 percent, to 177,633 units. Chevrolet rose 13.4 percent in 2011 to total sales of 1,775,812 vehicles, while GMC was up 18.8 percent on annual sales of 397,986 units.

For the month of December 2011, GM sales rose 4.7 percent, with Chevrolet up 8.9 percent at 161,158 units sold. GMC moved 41,960 vehicles for a 0.5-percent decrease from December 2010. Buick's sales dropped 12.4 percent from the same period in 2010, to 14,974 vehicles. And Cadillac fell 2.7 percent on the month, to 16,259 units.

GM says its sales highlights included a 54-percent boost for the Chevy Cruze, a 20-percent lift for the Camaro--and a record month for the Volt, which sold 1,529 units, for a total of 7,671 on the year, against a stated goal of 10,000 units.

Ford: Ford (NYSE: F) sales were up 17.4 percent in 2011, with a total of 2,062,915 vehicles, giving the company its third market-share increase in a row--something it hasn't done since 1970. The Fusion sedan accounted for 248,067 units, a record for the four-door, while the Explorer ended the year up 123.6 percent. Even the dated Escape pulled off a 33-percent year-over-year increase, but the Flex was off 19.9 percent. Ford also sold 584,917 trucks in 2011. For December 2011, Ford sales totaled 201,737 units, an increase of 15.6 percent.

Ford's Lincoln brand watched its sales rise 4.3 percent in December, but was off 0.2 percent on the year, for a total of 85,643 units. December's sales of 8,403 units were helped by a 22-percent boost in MKZ sales and a 6.7-percent increase with the MKX, but the MKS sedan was off 15.3 percent and the MKT crossover was down 32.4 percent.

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