US auto industry performs best in five years

MOTORING AHEAD::On the back of a tentative economic recovery, sales were up 13 percent from 2011, although the industry has a long way to go to recapture past form

AP, DETROIT, Michigan

Sat, Jan 05, 2013 - Page 15

A steadily improving economy and strong sales last month lifted the US auto industry to its best performance in five years last year, especially for Volkswagen and Japanese-brand vehicles, and experts say that this year should be even better.

Carmakers on Thursday announced their final figures, which totaled 14.5 million units — 13 percent better than 2011.

“The US light-vehicle sales market continues to be a bright spot in the tremulous global environment,” said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area industry forecasting firm.

Sales were far better than the bleak days after the US economy tanked and General Motors Corp (GM) and Chrysler LLC sought bankruptcy protection. Back then, sales fell to a 30-year low of 10.4 million and they are still far short of the recent peak of about 17 million set in 2005.

The best part of last year came at the end, when special deals on pickup trucks and the usual round of sparkling holiday ads helped last month’s sales jump 9 percent to more than 1.3 million, according to Autodata Corp. That translates to an annual rate of 15.4 million, making last month the strongest month of the year.

Volkswagen (VW) led all major automakers with sales up a staggering 35 percent, led by the redesigned Passat midsize sedan. VW sold more than five times as many Passats last year as it did in 2011.

Toyota Motor Corp, which has recovered from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crimped its factories two years ago, saw sales jump 27 percent for the year. Last month’s sales were up 9 percent. Unlike 2011, the company had plenty of new cars on dealer lots for most of last year.

Honda Motor Co sales rose 24 percent for the year. Nissan Motor Co and Infiniti sales were up nearly 10 percent as the Nissan brand topped 1 million in annual sales for the first time. Hyundai Motor Co sales rose 9 percent for the year to just over 703,000, the South Korean automaker’s best year in the US.

Chrysler LLC, the smallest of the Detroit carmakers, had the best year among US companies. Its sales jumped 21 percent for the year and 10 percent last month. Demand was led by the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Ram pickup and Chrysler 300 luxury sedan.

However, full-year sales at Ford Motor Co and General Motors lagged. Ford edged up 5 percent and GM rose only 3.7 percent for the year. For last month, Ford was up 2 percent and GM up 5 percent.

GM executives said the company has the oldest model lineup in the industry, yet it still posted a sales increase and commanded high prices for cars and trucks. The company plans to refurbish 70 percent of its North American models in the next 18 months and expects to boost sales this year.

Even though the congressional deal to avoid the US’ “fiscal cliff” raised tax rates on the wealthiest US citizens, Ford said it does not see a huge impact on auto sales.

Ford’s chief economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick said only 2 percent of new-vehicle buyers have income in that upper tax bracket and they tend to purchase even if there is a change in after-tax income.

She said Ford is more concerned about an increase in the payroll tax, which is scheduled to climb to 6.2 percent this year from 4.2 percent in 2011 and last year. That amounts to a US$1,000 to US$1,500 tax increase per household, she said.

Overall, analysts said the industry eased up on promotions such as rebates and low-interest financing. Car and truck buyers paid an average of US$31,228 per vehicle last month, up 1.8 percent from December 2011.

The Polk auto research firm predicted even stronger US sales for this year, forecasting 15.3 million vehicle sales as the economy continues to improve. Polk, based in Southfield, Michigan, expects 43 new models to be introduced, up 50 percent from last year.

New models usually boost sales. However, the firm’s optimistic forecasts hinge on Washington reaching an agreement on government debt limits and spending cuts.