As the industry heads into 2013, analysts project annual sales of about… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
In a key sign of a stronger economy, automakers posted a strong December to cap off the industry's best annual U.S. sales since 2007.
The strong sales — Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Audi and Porsche all set annual U.S. sales records — led several encouraging economic reports out Thursday.
The private sector grew by 215,000 jobs in December, boosted by solid gains in construction, professional services and trade and transportation, according to Automatic Data Processing. Meanwhile, planned layoffs announced in December plunged to 32,556 — the second-lowest monthly total of 2012, according to outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Overall, last year had the lowest 12-month job-cut total since 1997.
That contrasted with a murkier forecast for the retail sector. Although stores moved plenty of product through the holidays, much of it sold at deep discounts, raising concerns about maintaining sales momentum. Major chains did, however, post a 4.5% sales increase over December 2011, beating analysts' expectations, according to a Thomson Reuters tally of 17 retailers.
Auto sales and a strengthening housing recovery look to be the big drivers of the economy this year, said David Shulman, senior economist at the UCLA Anderson Forecast.
"Part of the auto recovery is tied to housing, as businesses and the construction trades go out and purchase trucks and other vehicles," Shulman said.
December truck sales were particularly strong. Beyond the housing recovery, the surge was driven by big discounts, as Ford and Chevrolet battled for market share, and a worry by business that Congress would end certain tax advantages for truck purchases in its "fiscal cliff" negotiations. (The tax benefits ultimately survived the political fray.)
As the industry heads into 2013, analysts project annual sales of about 15.5 million vehicles, barring an unforeseen disaster or political meltdown over budget issues in Washington.
"I think the underlying fundamentals of the economy are very sound," said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors' North American operations. "Access to money is sound, you see employment steadily increasing.... That's pretty upbeat."
Automakers sold 14.5 million vehicles last year, up 13.4% from 2011, according to Autodata Corp. That included almost 1.4 million sold last month, a 9% gain compared with the prior December.
Still, some car companies are maintaining caution.
"It would have been nice if all the open questions with the 'fiscal cliff' would have been resolved over the holiday. But clearly they weren't, and that does extend this period of uncertainty from a consumer point of view," said Jonathan Browning, chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America.
Nonetheless, U.S. sales of the automaker's VW brand grew 35.4% to 44,005 vehicles last month — its best December since 1970.
Ford's F-series trucks, Chevrolet's Camaro, Toyota's Camry and Honda's CR-V were the bestselling models in their segments of the market.
In an age-old battle, GM's Chevrolet Camaro narrowly edged out Ford's Mustang — 84,391 versus 82,995 — to become the top-selling muscle car.
But Ford remained king in trucks. With sales of 645,316, its F-series pickup was the bestselling vehicle of any type in America last year, outselling the Chevrolet Silverado, which had sales of 418,312.
Once again, Toyota had the bestselling passenger car. It sold 404,886 Camrys, making the Camry the top-selling car and No. 3 among all vehicles. Honda sold 331,872 Accords and 317,909 Civics last year.
Honda's CR-V took the crown in the small sport utility segment. Honda sold 281,652 CR-Vs, while Ford's Escape finished at 261,008.
The BMW brand topped the luxury segment, ending 2012 with sales of 281,460 vehicles, a 13.5% gain from 2011. The Mercedes-Benz brand reported record annual sales of 274,134 vehicles, up 11.8% from the prior year. Meanwhile, Audi, the third German luxury brand, came on strong. It sold 139,310 new cars and SUVs, eclipsing the prior year's sales by 18.5%.
In the rechargeable car segment, Chevrolet's Volt retained an edge over Nissan's Leaf. GM sold 23,461 of the plug-in hybrid Volts last year — three times what it sold the previous year. Nissan sold 9,819 of the all-electric Leafs, just 145 more than in the prior year. Later this month it is set to announce improvements to the vehicle that it hopes will improve sales.
Volkswagen ruled sales of diesel vehicles. The automaker sold 90,295 diesels in 2012 — up 55% from 2011. Diesels now account for 1 of every 5 VW sales in the nation.
Nissan, including its Infiniti brand, sold more than 1.1 million vehicles, up 9.5% from 2011. It was also the first time the Nissan brand saw U.S. annual sales top 1 million. But Nissan was also one of the few automakers to report that its December U.S. sales declined, falling 1.6% to 99,290 vehicles from a year earlier.
A host of new vehicle offerings should help the industry's sales this year and next.
Automakers plan to make 43 new vehicle introductions in the U.S. this year — up nearly 50% from 2012 levels, according to auto research firm R.L. Polk & Co. In addition, 60 vehicle redesigns are expected in the coming year.
"A lot of marketing dollars are put into the product launches," said Tom Libby, a Polk analyst. "That drives showroom traffic and sales."