Optimism and 14.4 Million Sold in 2012

The Fiscal Cliff, European Union financial crisis and plummeting car sales, and uncertainty in the Chinese market be damned. Last year was a very good one for the U.S. car and light truck market. Americans bought 14.4 million of them in 2012, up 13.4 percent from calendar '11's 12.7 million.

A year ago, I made a prediction worthy of all the political pundits who were sure Mitt Romney would be president-elect by now. My pessimistic forecast was for 13.2 million sales in '12. Perhaps more drivers have grown tired of Toyota Camrys that have another quarter-million miles left in them. Perhaps the slow return of new construction and infrastructure rebuilding is paying off with construction fleet pickup sales. Perhaps youthful antipathy to driving has been overblown.

In their monthly sales report briefings Thursday, the U.S. Big Three made predictions for '13. General Motors forecasts 15- to 15.5-million. Ford Motor Company (which includes medium- and heavy-duty trucks, for an additional 0.4-million sales last year) took the safe bet, of 15- to 16-million. Toyota is as pessimistic as I was last year, forecasting just 14.7 million in '13, with "continued economic stability and modest growth."

North America President Mark Reuss says his company's renewed or all-new fleet in the next 18 months, including Chevrolet Impala, Buick Encore, pickup trucks, large utilities and C7 Corvette, will help reverse GM's market share bleeding.

"This is the biggest portfolio turnover, I think, in automotive history," Reuss says. The new models will sell for more money. "We're always concerned about market share, but we're not going to give it away."

GM's aged pickup trucks, Wall Street's biggest concern about the post-bankruptcy company, were given away in recent months. Chevy Silverado was up just 0.8 percent for the year, but sales rose 6.1 percent in December '12 compared to December '11, and GMC Sierra was up 5.4 percent for the year, and up 13.4 percent for the month, as GM cut their inventory from 139 days at the beginning of December to just 80 days by the beginning of this month. Combined, Chevy and GMC sold 575,479, still well shy the national bestselling Ford F-Series, at 645,316, up 10.3 percent.

Ram sold 293,363 big pickups, up 20 percent. Toyota sold 101,621 Tundras, up 22.6 percent, and Nissan sold 21,576 Titans, off 1.9 percent.

This year also will be a good year to watch compact-vs.-midsize sales. Ford Focus outsold Fusion, and Chevy Cruze outsold Malibu last year, but both midsize sedans were in changeover mode. Toyota Camry, at 404,886, up 31.2 percent, is the bestselling car in the U.S., again. (Remember, that sales increase is the result of the Japanese natural disasters that severely cut production in 2011.) Ford claims the c-segment, including crossovers like its Escape, has become the biggest segment in the U.S., while GM maintains that compact sales aren't affecting midsize sales very much. I'll take a closer look at those numbers in the coming weeks.

As I'm writing this, at least five brands have reported record U.S. sales in 2012, including Hyundai, Kia, Subaru and Porsche, plus BMW Group. Luxury is thriving in the slow recovery from the Great Recession, and BMW has edged out Mercedes-Benz in the premium market here.

Also as I'm writing this, not all the manufacturers have posted their 2012 sales numbers. My estimable colleague, Joe Lorio, will give you the full rundown later this week. Meanwhile, my forecast for 2013 is 15.1 million. What's yours?

1. GM: 2,595,717 up 3.7 percent. December: 245,733 up 4.9 percent.

  • Last year, GM's sales had increased 13.7 percent over '11. This year, its fortunes rely on those new '14 pickup trucks, but even that will be mixed. Production starts in the second quarter as production of the old truck continues through the second quarter. This year's sales will be a mix of highly profitable '14s and highly discounted '13s.
  • Chevrolet sold 84,391 Camaros, off 4.4 percent, and Ford Mustang severely narrowed the gap, at 82,995, up 17.8 percent. Dodge sold 43,119 Challengers, up 9 percent.
  • Buick sold 24,616 Regals, off 38.7 percent, and 41,042 Veranos (new).
  • Cadillac division sold 149,792 units, off 1.7 percent.
  • Chevy sold 23,461Volts, up 205.8 percent.

2. Ford Motor Company: 2,250,165 up 4.7 percent. December: 214,222, up 1.9 percent.

  • Escape was up 2.6 percent, to 261,008, Focus was up 40 percent, to 245,922 and Fusion was off 2.7 percent, to 241,263.
  • Explorer was up 16.7 percent, to 158,344.
  • Lincoln sold 82,150 units, off 4.1 percent.
  • They Still Make That? Part I: Lincoln Navigator was up 4.4 percent, to 8371.

3. Toyota-Scion-Lexus: 2,082,504, up 26.6 percent. December: 194,143 up 9.0 percent.

  • Prius now entails three models, plus plug-in, and was up 73.4 percent, to 236,659.
  • Scion sold 11,417 FR-Ses.
  • They Still Make That? Part II: FJ Cruiser, up 0.8 percent, to 13,656.
  • Lexus sold 244,166, up 23 percent.

4. Chrysler LLC: 1,651,787 up 21 percent. December: 152,367, up 10 percent.

  • Fiat 500 was up 121 percent, to 43,722.
  • Dodge sold 25,303 Darts.
  • Chrysler sold 70,747 300s, up 95 percent.
  • Jeep sold 154,734 Grand Cherokees, up 21 percent.
  • Ram sold 7075 Cargo Vans.

5. American Honda (with Acura): 1,422,785 up 24 percent. December: 132,774 up 26.2 percent.

  • Chrysler passed Honda for fifth place in '11 because of the Japanese natural disasters, but even with production back up, Honda couldn't catch the hot Italian-American competitor.
  • Accord was up 40.8 percent, to 331,872.
  • Civic was up 43.7 percent, to 317,909.
  • Acura sold 156,216, up 26.7 percent.
  • They Still Make That? Part III: Acura sold 775 ZDXes, off 50.4 percent - '13 is its last model year.

6. Nissan North America (with Infiniti): 1,141,656 up 9.5 percent. December: 99,290, off 1.6 percent.

  • Altima sales rose 12.6 percent, to 302,934.
  • Sentra fell 7.5 percent, to 106,395.
  • Leaf sales totaled 9819, up 1.5 percent.
  • They Still Make That? Part IV: Xterra was off 5.5 percent, to 17,222.
  • Infiniti sold 119,877, up 21.8 percent.

7. Hyundai: 703,007 up 8.8 percent. December: 59,435 up 17 percent.

  • Sonata was up 20.5 percent, to 230,605.
  • Genesis was up 3 percent, to 33,973.

8. Kia: 557,599, up 14.9 percent. December: 39,178, off 9.7 percent.

  • Optima was a breakout model, at 152,399, up 80.2 percent.

9. Volkswagen of America: 438,133 up 35.1 percent. December: 44,005 off 35.4 percent.

  • Last year was VW of America's third-best, after 1970 (569,696) and 1973 (476,295).
  • North American chief Jonathan Browning says VW's sales growth will slow in '13, but will continue to outpace the industry.
  • Sold 117,023 Passats, up 412.5 percent.

10. BMW Group: 347,583, up 13.8 percent. December: 43,855 up 34.8 percent.

  • BMW Brand was up 13.5 percent, to 281,460.
  • Mini was up 15 percent, to 66,123.

11. Subaru: 336,441 up 26 percent. December: 36,653, up 8.8 percent.

  • Sold 4144 BRZs.
  • They Still Make That? Part V: Tribeca was off 25.7 percent to 2075.

12. Mercedes-Benz USA: 305,072, up 15.4 percent. December: 31,372 up 12 percent.

  • Mercedes brand, including Maybach, was up 11.8 percent, to 274,134.
  • They Still Make That? Part VI: Maybach was up 28.2 percent, to 50. This is its last model year.
  • Sprinter was up 26.3 percent, to 20,929.
  • Smart was up 92.2 percent, to 10,009.

13. Mazda: 277,046 up 10.6 percent. December: 27,251, up 21.9 percent.

  • Miata sold 6305, up 11.1 percent.
  • 3 was up 20.4 percent, to 123,361.
  • 14. Audi: 139,310, up 18.5 percent. December: 14,841 up 17.3 percent.

    • Q5 outsold Suzuki, at 28,671, up 15.1 percent.

    15. Mitsubishi: 57,790, off 26.9 percent. December: 4113, off 18.3 percent.

    • They Still Make That? Part VII: Galant was off 15.2 percent, to 13,261. Actually, Mitsu doesn't still make it, nor does it make the Eclipse or Endeavor. The company has made compacts and smaller its niche and is slimming its line on purpose. Will it become the next Suzuki, anyway?

    16. Jaguar/Land Rover: 55,675 up 11 percent. December: 6223 up 6 percent.

    • Land Rover was up 15 percent, to 43,664.
    • Jaguar fell 2 percent, to 12,001.

    17. Porsche: 35,043 up 21 percent. December: 2952, up 61 percent.

    • 911 was up 42 percent, to 8528.

    18. American Suzuki: 25,358, off 5 percent. December: 1946, off 24 percent.

    • Edged out Chevy Volt by 1897 units. Outsold the new Dodge Dart by 55 units.
    • Says final shipment of 2500 cars is on the way, and 215 of 219 U.S. dealers have committed to carrying parts in the future.
    • A few of the models and brands that outsold Suzuki last year: Porsche, Mitsubishi's SUVs, Mazda6, Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen Beetle, Mercedes GL-Class, Acura TSX, Nissan Juke, Hyundai Veloster, Lexus IS, Lincoln MKZ, GMC Yukon.

    Volvo: CY12 sales were not yet posted.

    Follow me on Twitter: @AM_Lassa

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