Photo: Romain Blanquart/ Detroit Free Press
by Geri Coleman Tucker, James R. Healey and Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
U.S. automakers wrapped up 2012 by posting their best sales performance in years.
Chrysler led the way with a 10% jump in December sales. General Motors' sales in December were up a modest 4.9%, and Ford's rose 1.9%.
But it was a European automaker, Volkswagen, whose sales went gangbusters last month, rocketing up 35.4%, to 44,005, on the strength of its popular Jetta and Passat. Sales of the mid-size Passat in December were more than double the year-ago tally, but was the model was still outsold by the compact Jetta, VW's best-selling U.S. model. Volkwagen said it was its best December since 1973.
Other major automakers also closed out the year on solid footing. Toyota says its December sales rose 9% from a year earlier, a surprisingly modest gain considering the big year that the company has had. And Hyundai sales surged 17% from a year ago.
Analysts at car-buying research site Edmunds.com had forecast a 9.6% increase in December sales from a year ago. More automakers are expected to report later today. But as for Detroit automakers:
GM's sales growth, which lagged most of its competitors, were helped a bit by new models, among them the Buick Verano, and the Chevrolet Spark, Sonic and Cruze. Sales of the Volt extended range electric sales jumped 72%. "In a strong year for the auto industry overall, GM struggled to hold up its end in 2012," says analyst Jessica Caldwell of Edmunds.com. "Its year-over-year growth is well under the industry average, and the company couldn't hold on to market share gains it enjoyed in 2011. The biggest disappointment is Cadillac." GM says sales were up 38% from November, a key point to car companies because those are higher-profit sales to individuals, rather than the discounted sales to fleet buyers such as rental-car companies.
Chrysler Group, majority owned by Italy's Fiat, credited its new Dart compact sedan with a strong December showing. Dart racked up its best monthly sales performance since it went on sale in June. Also contributing to Chrysler Group's 10% increase were the Fiat 500, Jeep Wrangler, Dodge Challenger, Dodge Journey, and Ram Cargo Van. Each set a sales record for the month.
Ford had its best December since 2006 despite only a 1.9% sales increase. Although its received mostly positive reviews, its midsize Fusion saw a nearly 11% drop in sales and the Escape small SUV was down 21.3%. Both vehicles have been the subject of embarrassing recalls this year. Even Ford's popular and best-selling F-series trucks didn't move off dealer lots in December, despite heaving promotion. Sales rose just 0.7%. The full-year gain is a more respectable 10.3%.
Among the European automakers:
-- Porsche, which sells about one in four of its vehicles in the U.S., sold a record 35,043 cars and SUVs here last year, a 21% increase over the previous year. December sales jumped 61%.
-- Audi had the best year and best month in its history in the U.S. market, driven by its A7 and A8 sedans, Q5 crossover and TDI diesels. For the full year, Audi sold 139,310 new cars and SUVs, up 18.5% from a year earlier. Sales hit 14,841 in December, up 17.3% from a year earlier.
When it came GM, Wall Street liked some of what it saw.
Sales of GM's very profitable Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups were 29.5% of GM sales in December, according to Ryan Brinkman, auto industry analyst at J.P. Morgan, which was a "substantially richer mix than the 23.8% seen in November and higher also vs. the 28.5% seen in October," he said in a note to clients.
He also noted that GM's troubling overstock of vehicles fell significantly. He calculated that total GM inventories fell to a 76-day supply in December, vs. 106 days in November. And its stockpile of pickups dropped to 222,000 at the end of December, an 80-day supply, vs. 106-days a month earlier.
Pickups are especially important. GM is about to launch redesigned Silverado and Sierra trucks and if it has too many old ones on hand, it might have to sell those off at big discounts, hurting initial sales of the new trucks.
GM said that the month's totals would make it the first to sell 1 million vehicles in its home market that were rated 30 mpg or more on the highway.
"In 2013, we'll introduce new diesel, eAssist and plug-in vehicles in the United States and expand the availability of turbocharged four-cylinder engines. This will give us the most technologically diverse range of fuel-efficient cars and crossovers in the industry," said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America.
First diesel is to be in the Cruze compact, according to GM CEO Dan Akerson.
The eAssist is GM's name for a mild hybrid system used in some Buick and Chevrolet models, including versions of the Chevy Malibu that's pictured above..
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