May 2012 Car Sales: The Ohana Edition

June 3, 2012
Disney fans know the Hawai'ian word ohana can mean family, or, "no one gets left behind." Apparently, car buyers haven't forgotten the meaning: they returned to showrooms for a knockout round of May car sales, with only a few brands left behind by the rising trendlines.

On the month, Chrysler and Volkswagen each turned in yet another big sales month. Toyota rocketed to a huge gain, based on year-over-year comparisons with May 2011, when it suffered the brunt of inventory losses due to the March 2011 earthquake in northeastern Japan. GM and Ford rose strongly--with some increases in fleet sales--and the Koreans kept their sales marching at a brisk pace. The word "sustainable"? It's being paired with "recovery" again, for the first time in more than five years.

At Cadillac, Lincoln, Jaguar, Volvo and Mitsubishi, however, sales were off, providing the contrast in an otherwise bright sales picture.

The numbers were a mild surprise for analysts, since other economic indicators like May's higher U.S. unemployment rate continue to vex consumers and the White House. The sales figures weren't just a single moonshot: May marks the third month in a row of a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of  more than 14.3 million sales. More or less stable this spring, the SAAR isn't far off the 14.9 million units posted in 2008, the year the industry plunged into the depths of the financial crisis.

Sales in 2012 have outpaced projections, according to analysts J.D. Power and Associates, and that methodical improvement indicates a firmer footing for the auto industry's recovery from the recession, says John Humphrey, senior vice president of global automotive operations at J.D. Power and Associates. "The fact that we continue to see strong month-over-month results in retail sales," he says, "points to the underlying strength of the recovery for the industry going forward."

Power estimates May 2012's SAAR at 14.3 million units, down slightly from April 2012's 14.5 million. For the year, they think the industry will post a SAAR of 14.5 million units. The figure has been adjusted upward from just last month, based on the buoyancy that sales have continued to show through the spring--traditionally, the strongest sales months of the year.

The totals for May 2012, as reported by the automakers:

General Motors: GM (NYSE: GM) says it sold 245,256 new vehicles in May 2012, for an increase of 11 percent over May 2011. It was GM's best month since August 2009, but fleet sales rose by 3 percent. Cadillac sales fell to 9,871, off 15 percent--but sales at Buick rose 19 percent to 18,565 vehicles and at GMC to 38,877 units, also a 19-percent gain. Chevrolet was up 10 percent, at 177,943 vehicles.

Ford: Ford (NYSE: F) sold 216,267 vehicles in May, up 13 percent over the same period in 2012. The company says its retail sales were up 12 percent. While its F-Series trucks saw a 29-percent gain, and the Mustang rebounded 58 percent, the Lincoln brand fell 1.7 percent to 7,274 units--in large part due to the discontinuation of the big Town Car livery special.

Toyota / Lexus / Scion: Toyota's month-to-month comparison with May 2011 proved how devastating last year's Japan earthquake was on its business. May 2012's U.S. sales tallied 202,973 units-- up 72.9 percent over the year prior--with Toyota division posting 181,510 sales for an increase of 74.4 percent. Lexus sales were up 61 percent, to 21,463 vehicles; and Scion rose 18.9 percent to 6,047 vehicles.

Honda / Acura: Honda says its sales were up 47. 6 percent in May, a rebound also attributed in part to last year's devastation in the Japan earthquake. Honda sold 133,997 vehicles in all, with the Honda division accounting for 119,411 units, up 46 percent, and Acura taking 14,586 units, up 62.1 percent.

Chrysler: Chrysler continued its hot streak with a 30-percent increase in U.S. sales in May. The total of 115,363 units was led by the Dodge brand, up 14 percent with 45,793 vehicles sold; Jeep kicked in 44,198 units on a 24-percent increase; the Chrysler brand was up 81 percent to 29,674 vehicles, and Ram sales grew 23 percent to 26,373 units. Fiat sold more than 4,000 cars in May, a pace that almost meets initial projections of 50,000 units a year. It was Chrysler's 12th month of sales gains of more than 20 percent.

Nissan / Infiniti: Nissan says it sold 91,794 vehicles in May, up 20.5 percent from May of 2011. The Nissan brand grew by 16.4 percent to 81,202 units, while Infiniti was up 65.8 percent to 10,592 vehicles sold, a big increase that shows the arrival of the big JX crossover in showrooms.

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