May of 2011 was the month that saw new-car sales collapse at many of the Japanese automakers, as inventories dried up due to supply interruptions caused by the disaster in Japan. Today, the Japanese auto industry is back to full strength, which means some wild year-over-year sales increases for May.
New-car sales overall, though, have actually throttled back a bit from the strong acceleration we were seeing in the first part of 2012. May's annualized sales rate was just under 14 million units, whereas we had been running above 14 million. Most industry executives, however, don't appear to be worried about a drop-off in demand. Factories are running at full steam, and gasoline prices have dropped. The latter was a surprise given that we're just coming in to peak summer driving season, but, in a sudden reversal, the commodities casino sent oil prices tumbling in May, dragging down gasoline prices.
Fluctuating fuel prices are just part of the background noise in the auto market, but the bigger trend appears to be a return to normalcy after the recent financial and supply disruptions. With all the players fully participating again, every automaker will have to be at the top of their game if they want to steal share in this market.
MAY 2012 SALES RESULTS, AND PERCENT CHANGE MAY 2011.
GENERAL MOTORS +11%
General Motors sales couldn't keep up with the overall industry's 26% year-over-year increase, but the company's May results not only were better than the decline it experienced in April, but the nearly quarter-of-a-million units was the best monthly total since the Cash-for-Clunkers bonanza. Unlike last month, when GMC was the only division to better its year-ago performance, this time every division save Cadillac was in positive territory. Note that overall, fleet sales are still a significant part of the GM mix, at 30% of the total.
The departing Avalanche got a big send-off (+70%), in a month where every Chevy truck was up; among continuing models, the Traverse (+37%) posted the best increase. On the car side, the Cruze slipped again (-14%), as did the sports cars, but the Malibu (+16%) had a monster month with nearly 30,000 sold.
GMC was buoyed by a strong pickup truck market, which was driven by a drop in fuel prices (spurring personal-use buyers) or by a generally improving economy (motivating commercial buyers).
Buick had a welcome reversal of fortune in May. The Verano continues to grow volume, but the Regal (-40%) continues to drop. The LaCrosse (+19%) and the Enclave (+55%) enjoyed a nice bump.
Cadillac was the only GM division to decline in May. The SRX turned in the strongest performance, and it was flat. Help is on the way, however, in the form of the new ATS and the XTS -- the latter should start hitting showrooms next month.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY +13%
Like GM, Ford was up in May after being down in April, but still lost share as the overall market grew faster. Nonetheless, Ford once again was just able to stay ahead of surging Toyota, but the company's number two spot looks to be in jeopardy.
Lead by the F-series (+29%), Ford trucks outpaced Ford cars in May. Beyond big pickups, it was some of the more obscure corners of the truck lineup that did well, including the Transit Connect (+53%, its best-ever month) and -- could it be? -- the Flex (+40%). Looking at the cars, the 2013 Mustang (+58%) zoomed ahead, passing the Camaro in the process, and the Fusion had its best-ever month for retail sales and total volume of nearly 27,000 units. Among continuing nameplates, only the Fiesta (-15%) was down.
The MKS (+24%) wasn't up nearly as much as last month but still did well, as did the MKX (+27%) and the MKT, which doubled on very small volume. The loss of some 1200 Town Car sales, though, is still being felt at Lincoln.
TOYOTA MOTOR SALES +87%
We expected it, and we got it. Toyota's May sales gain looks huge, since it's compared to last May's disastrous figure. But look at the total compared to last month, and sales still jumped more than 13%, which is very impressive.
Toyota's month-over-month increase is so huge, we could confine the list of winners only to those models that at least doubled their volume, and it would still be a long list: Camry (with sales closing in on 40,000); Prius (which tripled, with the addition of the V and the C); Yaris (despite much better competition); Highlander; Land Cruiser (though still only 240 units); RAV4; and Tundra. The ancient Corolla/Matrix didn't double but did manage to sell an incredible 31,847 units. What looks weak? The Avalon (-7%), which is about to be replaced; the Venza (+13%), the Sequoia (+14%), and the FJ Cruiser (+23%).
As at Toyota, the sales gain at Lexus was artificially enhanced but the sales strength is real, with a nice increase over April. The new GS again added nearly 2000 to the Lexus total, but the bigger contributor was the RX (+82%). The CT (+241%) and the IS (+55%) also helped. The LS, however, continues to sink.
The FR-S only saw 86 deliveries and so isn't yet a factor for Scion. But the iQ, with nearly 900, is. Strangely, the tC coupe declined (-18%) while both four-doors increased.