Detroit’s Big Three automakers yesterday posted solid US sales for last month, driving a strong performance last year and expectations for an even better year for this year as the industry slowly climbs out of a deep downturn.
Last year, the rebirth of the US auto industry was solidified after years of bleeding balance sheets, painful restructuring and the government-backed bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler.
It was also a year that likely saw Toyota lose its global sales crown after inventories were crippled by the March 11 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, allowing Mercedes to overtake Toyota’s Lexus as the best-selling luxury brand in the US.
“It’s now clear that auto sales should continue to grow in 2012 barring a shock to the system,” said Don Johnson, who heads US sales operations for General Motors.
Total industry sales rose 10.8 percent to 12.8 million vehicles last year, according to Autodata.
GM forecast that this year’s sales will reach 13.5 million to 14 million.
That is still down significantly from the 15 million to 17 million vehicles sold annually in the dozen years leading up to the 2008 crash, but solid enough growth that GM, Ford and Chrysler should continue to post rich profits.
“I think this pace of growth is good for the industry and for the country,” Johnson said in a conference call. “It gives the industry the chance to really institutionalize the discipline that has allowed us to prosper at lower sales volumes.”
GM’s sales rose 5 percent to 234,351 last month and were up 14 percent at 2.5 million vehicles for the year.
Ford also forecast solid industry growth this year, with US sales rising to 13.5 million to 14.5 million vehicles and global sales in a range of 75 million to 85 million vehicles.
“The momentum coming out of the fourth quarter of last year provides confidence that the lower end of this range is less likely,” Ford chief economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick said in a conference call. “At the same time we are well aware of how quickly the business conditions can change, so we’ll keep our focus on matching production to demand.”
Ford’s sales rose 10 percent to 210,140 last month and were up 11 percent at 2.1 million vehicles last year.
Chrysler, the No. 3 US automaker, reported US sales last month jumped 37 percent from a year earlier to the highest monthly level since May 2008.
For all of last year, Chrysler sold 1.4 million vehicles, an increase of 26 percent from 2010.
“We were the fastest-growing automaker in the country, increasing our market share 1.3 percentage points during 2011,” said Reid Bigland, head of US sales.
Toyota saw US sales drop 7 percent to 1.6 million vehicles last year, largely due to supply shortages caused by the mega-disaster that struck Japan.
The Japanese firm’s US market share dropped 2.3 points to 12.3 percent and it is expected to lose the global sales crown it won from GM in 2008.
Inventories are not expected to return to “optimal” levels until the end of March even though global production returned to normal in October, said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales, USA.
With 19 new or updated models hitting US showrooms this year, Toyota expects sales to outpace the industry and jump 15 percent to 1.9 million vehicles, he added.
“We begin 2012 with high expectations fueled by a strengthening economy, increasing consumer confidence and the biggest surge of new and updated products in our history,” Lentz said in a conference call.