Nissan cars are unloaded at the Port of Los Angeles last month. Japanese… (Tim Rue, Bloomberg )
Automakers finished 2011 with their strongest performance in three years as once-bankrupt Chrysler Group recorded a stunning 26.2% surge in sales to pace the industry.
Helped by a memorable "Imported From Detroit" advertising campaign launched during the Super Bowl in February and a raft of updated models, Chrysler sold 1.4 million vehicles last year. Its share of the U.S. market grew to 10.7%, up more than a percentage point.
"When Chrysler came out of bankruptcy in 2009, its survival remained in question, but 2011 proved the doubters wrong," said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com.
The three big Detroit carmakers all logged double-digit sales growth during the year, helping to drive a 10.3% increase in the auto industry's sales to 12.8 million vehicles. And automakers are expecting the industry to continue to grow this year.
But the good tidings weren't shared by all. The Japanese will be glad to see 2011 in their rearview mirror. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. saw sales fall, giving rise to big gains at other import brands such as Volkswagen and Hyundai.
Japanese automakers were hamstrung by their nation's crippling earthquake and tsunami in March, and later by flooding that closed parts suppliers in Thailand. The disasters disrupted global auto manufacturing for the companies and left them without enough cars for the American market.
Overall auto sales rose 8.7% to more than 1.2 million vehicles in December, when a number of battles were fought as automakers tried to win sales crowns they could use for bragging rights this year.
Lexus, the luxury sales leader for 11 consecutive years, came in third in 2011. BMW appeared to have replaced Lexus, but there was some doubt in the industry because the company didn't release its sales number with the rest of the automakers, saying it would be delayed a day. According to estimates by Autodata Corp., an industry information firm, the BMW brand sold 248,073 vehicles. Mercedes-Benz, which also did not release its results, appeared to have come in a very close second with sales of 245,269 after subtracting sales of cargo vehicles, according to the Autodata data. Lexus, the luxury division of Toyota, had sales of 198,552 vehicles.
But Toyota was the winner in the family car segment of the market. Despite supply problems, Toyota sold 308,510 Camrys, making the model the top seller for 10th consecutive year. And its Sienna was the bestselling minivan.
The carmaker scored another win with the Prius, which remains the most popular hybrid. Toyota sold 136,463 of the Prius despite earthquake-related supply problems. No other hybrid was anywhere close. Ford, for example, sold only 11,286 of the Fusion hybrid, even though the vehicle has received good reviews from the automotive press.
Ford's F-series pickup truck was the bestselling vehicle of any type in America. Sales rose almost 11% to 584,917, making it the only vehicle to cross the 500,000 barrier last year. Chevrolet's Silverado was a distant second with sales that rose 12% to 415,130.
Chevrolet, however, did win the so-called pony car battle. Sales of its Camaro rose almost 9% to 88,249 as sales of Ford's Mustang fell 4% to 70,438.
The Ford Escape was the bestselling sport utility vehicle, with sales of 254,293.
Sales of electric vehicles were barely measurable. The Nissan Leaf sold just 9,674 units and Chevrolet sold only 7,671 Volts.
For the year, General Motors Co. sold 2.5 million vehicles, a 13.2% gain, Autodata reported. It had the biggest market share, accounting for 19.6% of U.S. auto sales. Ford Motor Co. sales topped 2.1 million, an 11% increase. It was No. 2, with a 16.8% share.
Toyota saw its sales fall 6.7% to 1.6 million vehicles last year, and its share of the market fell to 12.9% from 15.2% in 2010 — its lowest since 2004. Honda's sales dropped 6.8% to 1.1 million vehicles. Of the major Japanese automakers, only Nissan North America seemed to escape the disasters. Its sales rose 14.7% to more than 1 million vehicles last year.
Volkswagen of America's sales rose 26.3% for the year to 324,400. Hyundai Motor America sold 645,691 vehicles, a 20% gain; 2011 was its best year in the U.S. market.
Automakers are predicting sales of 13.5 million to 14 million vehicles this year.
The high average age of vehicles in use should contribute to a stronger replacement market, the automakers said.
"Nearly 50 million vehicles on the road are 11 years to 15 years old. That is roughly 1 out of every 5 vehicles in operation," said Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, Ford's chief economist.
Additionally, the recovering Japanese inventory and slowly improving economic fundamentals "lead us to be increasingly confident that 2012 U.S. auto sales should continue to grow," said Brett Hoselton, an analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.
Toyota executives said a better supply of vehicles and introduction of a raft of new models should help their sales approach the 2-million mark this year.