A remarkable 2011 for auto sales

The Big 3 saw double-digit sales gains last year, and they project even better performance for 2012.

By Kim Peterson Jan 4, 2012 2:11PM
Updated 5:15 p.m. ET

Automakers reported another solid month of sales in December, capping a truly remarkable year in which the industry rebounded strongly despite a shaky economy.

The Big Three all saw double-digit sales gains in 2011 from the previous year. Chrysler had the most to brag about, with sales soaring 26%. General Motors (GM) saw sales rise 14%, and Ford (F) sales were up 11%.

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And the industry is expecting even better sales this year. Ford thinks the economy will expand 2% to 3%, and it predicts 2012 industry sales in the range of 13.5 million to 14.5 million -- higher than the estimated 12.7 million vehicles sold in 2011. GM expects 2012 sales in a narrower range of 13.5 million to 14 million units.

"Over the course of the fourth quarter of 2011, clear signs emerged that U.S. consumers are more confident and that other underpinnings of our economy are either stable or slowly improving," said Don Johnson, GM's U.S. sales chief. "When we add improving economic fundamentals to pent-up demand and an aging vehicle fleet, it's now clear that auto sales should continue to grow in 2012, barring a shock to the system."

It's clear from the December figures that the auto industry is cruising into 2012 on strong momentum. Chrysler, controlled by Italian automaker Fiat (FIATY), is again looking like the clear winner for the month, with sales up 37% to 138,000 vehicles. Ford sales jumped 10% to 210,000 and GM sales rose 5% to 234,000.

Ford investors were pleased, sending shares up 1.5% Wednesday to close at $11.30. GM shares initially went the other direction in the morning, but closed the day up less than 1% to $21.15. The U.S. Treasury still owns some 500 million GM shares, by the way.

Toyota sales were flat in December, but that is in itself something of an achievement considering how badly the company was hurt in the March tsunami and earthquake in Japan. For the full year, Toyota's annual sales were down 7% from 2010 as inventory remained scarce.

Overall, the seasonally adjusted annual rate for light vehicles came in at 13.6 million, according to industry tracking firm Autodata -- higher than the 13.4 million analysts were expecting. That's down slightly from the 13.7 million seen in November but still much higher than the 11.8 million seen in May and the 11.5 million in June. Total industry unit deliveries rose 8.7% from December 2010.

"It was really after the 25th of December when we really saw a pretty strong acceleration and ended the year on what really was a high note," said Ford's U.S. sales analyst, Erich Merkle, according to the Detroit Free Press.

One Citi analyst said the strong 2012 forecast bodes well for auto suppliers like American Axle and Lear (LEA), Forbes reports. Another interesting stock pick supplying the industry is Johnson Controls (JCI).

Here's what the individual automakers reported for December:

GM
Total U.S. sales: 234,351
Change from a year ago: 5% gain
Of note: Fleet deliveries up 17%

Ford
Total U.S. sales: 190,976
Change from a year ago: 10% gain
Of note: 68,278 F-Series pickups sold, the best December sales results since 2006

Toyota (TM)
Total U.S. sales: 178,131
Change from a year ago: No change
Of note: Strong comeback after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan

Chrysler
Total U.S. sales: 138,019
Change from a year ago: 37% gain
Of note: Strong sales of the Chrysler 300 and Chrysler 200 sedans

Honda (HMC)
Total U.S. sales: 105,230
Change from a year ago: 19% loss
Of note: Low inventory in December

Nissan (NSANY)
Total U.S. sales: 100,927
Change from a year ago: 7.7% gain
Of note: Overall 2011 sales up 17.3% from 2010

Hyundai (HYMLF)
Total U.S. sales: 50,765
Change from a year ago: 13% gain
Of note: Overall 2011 sales up 20% from 2010

Volkswagen (VLKAY)
Total U.S. sales: 32,502
Change from a year ago: 36.2% gain
Of note: Best December since 1972

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