2009 December Auto Sales – Special Year-End Edition!

December auto sales provided some reason for hope going into 2010. The December total of 1,030,096 units sold was better than any other month in a grim 2009, save for August, which was fueled by the Cash-for-Clunkers program. December was also a considerable improvement over November – a 38% improvement, to be exact.

Taking the year as a whole, 2009 auto sales fell 21% from the total for 2008 – itself a bad year in which high gas prices in the spring and summer crippled sales of SUVs and pickups, and then the financial/credit crisis in the fall hobbled sales of nearly everything.

But of course this past year wasn’t equally bad for everyone – three brands actually sold more cars in 2009 than 2008 – and the sun is beginning to peek through the clouds for most automakers, but not all, as we’ll see in an examination of the latest data. – Joe Lorio

(Sources: Automotive News, company press releases)

For these three brands, 2009 must have felt like one long funeral during which they had a major case of the giggles:

All year long, Subaru has been The Little Boxer Engine That Could, chugging along through the wreckage of the 2009 auto market, winning new customers and racking up gains. The Forester was the driving force through most of the year but the Impreza and the new Legacy/Outback have helped, too. Subaru’s 15% increase is even more impressive when you realize that, unlike much of the auto industry, Subaru actually was coming off a pretty good year in 2008, too. Oh, and in December, Subaru did 33% better than the prior December, which is more than twice the average sales gain for the month.

The recession, and Cash-for-Clunkers, were gifts to the Korean wonder twins, both of whom enjoyed a healthy sales increase this year. An extremely strong December (with an industry-best 42% increase over last December) suggests that the Korean juggernaut won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

These automakers did well by doing less bad than most:

With the industry as a whole down by 21% this year, VW/Audi’s relatively modest 5% drop nets them a market share gain. Between the two brands, Audi did a bit worse than Volkswagen, but the two were very close.

Jaguar and Land Rover had a tough year, but improvement toward year’s end meant it wasn’t as tough as most luxury brands’. Bolstered by revamped Range Rovers and the new LR4, Land Rover’s full-year decline was a relatively modest 11%, and the brand enjoyed a gangbusters December, up 37% over the previous year. Jaguar was off 19% for the year and had a more modest – but still better than average – 24% gain in December.

For all the happy talk this year about Ford, America’s favorite not-bankrupt auto company, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Ford sold 16% fewer cars in 2009 than in its not-so-great 2008. Nonetheless, the company’s financial solvency (not to be confused with financial health) allowed it to bask in the warm glow of approval from a public disgusted with other industrial giants hitting it up for cash. December 2009 looked particularly strong, with an increase over a miserable December 2008 of 33%, equal to white-hot Subaru but on much larger volumes. Even with its full-year sales decline, Ford was able to win market share for the first time in years, and new products due in 2010 may allow it to extend those gains.

Mercedes-Benz and Smart finished the year just slightly better than the industry average 21% decline and – perhaps more important given the intense rivalry – just slightly better than the BMW Group. December sales were flat versus the year prior.

Honda and Nissan, two major Cash-for-Clunkers beneficiaries, saw equal declines this year. Both companies were dragged down somewhat by their luxury brands, Acura (off 27%) and Infiniti (dropping 28%). Honda’s performance, though, was still better than average and was easily enough to blow past faltering Chrysler to move into fourth place in the industry, while Nissan remains unchanged in the number-six spot. Both companies finished the year with better-than-average gains in December.

BMW and Toyota’s bad 2009 was just slightly less bad than the industry average. BMW was helped out a bit by Mini, and Toyota got a hand from Lexus – but not Scion. Toyota’s decline comes despite a Cash-for-Clunkers-fueled bonanza this summer (its Corolla was the most popular government-incentivized purchase). BMW finished the year with a relative whimper, a 9% gain (weaker than the industry average 15%), while Toyota powered to a 32% increase for the year’s final month.

The following automakers are the ones who would most like to put 2009 far behind them:

MAZDA -21%
Mazda’s 21% sales decline exactly matched the overall market. But Mazda fell behind the pack in December, squeaking out only a 2% increase for the month where the industry as a whole posted a 15% gain.

Porsche’s bad year ended on a bad note, a 2% decline in December versus the year prior. And that’s with the addition of the Panamera to the lineup.

GM’s results are the most difficult to dissect of any car company this past year. Not only did GM earn public enmity by taking a government bailout, it went through a hugely publicized bankruptcy, slashed hundreds of its dealers in a massive bloodletting, and is closing down two of its major brands and attempting to sell two minor ones. For all that, what’s surprising is that its 30% sales decline – although hideous – wasn’t even worse. GM finished the year still the nation’s biggest auto seller, some 300,000 units ahead of number-two Toyota. GM lost further ground in December 2009, with a 6% sales decline versus December 2008, but those totals include the run-out brands (and, the company claims, a one-third decline in fleet sales). Separate out only Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, and Cadillac, and you get a 2% increase in December, and a 26% full-year drop. Still not good, but a bit less bad.

Chrysler endured almost as much negative juju in 2009 as GM – with bailout, bankruptcy, and bloodletting – but it did not shutter any brands, so its sales results are less murky. They’re just bad. Nor was Chrysler able to participate in the December bounce, with sales off 4% versus last December’s grim total.

Mitsubishi capped off a wretched 2009 with a somewhat less wretched month of December, with sales off by 5% versus the previous December.

Maserati’s 2009 bad news continued right through December, with a 57% decline in the final month of the year.

Like Mitsubishi, Japan’s other small player, Suzuki, suffered mightily in 2009, but it saw no relief in December, with sales for the month down 48% versus year-ago.

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