DETROIT It’s not quite boom times for the U.S. auto industry. But it’s getting there.
A steadily improving economy and strong December sales lifted the American auto industry to its best performance in five years in 2012, especially for Volkswagen and Japanese-brand vehicles, and experts say the next year should be even better.
Manufacturers on Thursday were announcing their final yearly figures. Industrywide, sales were expected to top 14.5 million – a 13.4 percent increase over 2011 and the most since 2007.
More than three years after the federal government’s $62 billion auto-industry bailout, Americans had plenty of incentive to buy new cars and trucks in the year just ended. Unemployment eased. Home sales and prices rose. And the average age of a car topped 11 years in the United States – a record that spurred people to trade in old vehicles. Banks made that easier by offering low interest rates and greater access to loans, even for buyers with lousy credit.
Here are the highlights and lowlights of 2012, and what’s coming from the industry in 2013:
Volkswagen saw a 35 percent jump in sales in 2012, one of the biggest increases in the industry. The new Passat midsize car was the driver, with sales up 413 percent over 2011. Chrysler’s sales jumped 21 percent thanks to strong sales of the Dodge Caravan minivan and the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV.
Both General Motors and Ford gained sales in 2011, when the earthquake hurt their Japanese competitors. But the Japanese snatched those sales back in 2012, and GM and Ford lagged. GM saw a 4 percent sales increase for the year, hurt by weak truck and Cadillac sales. Ford’s sales were up 5 percent after new versions of some of its biggest sellers – the Ford Escape SUV and Fusion sedan – had to be recalled for safety problems. But they still had plenty of bright spots. Car and SUV sales were solid. New models like the Ford C-Max hybrid and the Buick Verano small car were well received.
Welcome back, Japan
Those who wrote off Japanese carmakers after Toyota’s recalls in 2010 and earthquake-related car shortages in 2011 were wrong. Japanese companies, which struggled after the earthquake, got their U.S. supplies back to normal in the first few months of 2012 and never looked back. Toyota’s U.S. sales rose 28 percent, and the Camry sedan had its best year since 2008. Honda’s sales rose 24 percent.
The Chevrolet Sonic, GM’s first really competitive small car, quickly became the best-selling subcompact in the United States last year. Sales hit 81,247. Sales of the Volkswagen Beetle surged 400 percent to 28,654 after a more aggressive, masculine design hit showrooms. The latest version of the Honda CR-V, a favorite family hauler, set an annual sales record of 281,652. The Toyota Prius jumped 73 percent to 236,659 thanks to new wagon, subcompact and plug-in versions.
The new Dodge Dart, a compact that was rolled out with much fanfare last summer, didn’t start gaining momentum until the end of the year. December sales were 6,105 – more than double those in August, but still just a fraction of those of such competitors as the Chevrolet Cruze. Sales of the new Chevrolet Malibu were up just 3 percent in 2012. The new Nissan Altima, which has a more dramatic design and a host of advanced features, such as a lane departure warning system, has struggled in a crowded market. Altima sales were flat or down for three of the last four months of 2012.
Small cars were big sellers as gas reached $3.60 per gallon, which AAA said was the most expensive annual average on record. The Ford Focus compact jumped more than 40 percent and outsold Ford’s midsize Fusion. Honda Civic sales jumped 44 percent and nearly outsold the Accord. Sales of the Fiat 500 mini car more than doubled.
Pickups pick up
After four years of lackluster sales, big pickups started to gain traction late in the year. Home construction began to recover. That directly affects pickup sales because builders feel more confident and replace old trucks. Those trucks needed replacing: The average U.S. pickup is more than 11 years old. Sales of Ford’s F-Series rose 10 percent for the year. Chrysler Ram sales rose 20 percent, and the Toyota Tundra was up 23 percent.
Electric cars continued to struggle because of high price tags and worries about a lack of places to charge batteries. GM cut production of the Chevrolet Volt in the spring and later began offering big discounts to juice sales. The Volt ended 2012 with total sales of 23,461 – triple its sales in 2011. But the electric Nissan Leaf was up just 1.5 percent to 9,819. Nissan’s goal had been to sell 20,000 Leafs in the United States in 2012.
There’s cause for optimism this year because of employment, housing and consumer confidence gains, said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for the TrueCar.com auto pricing site. Interest rates remain low. Fierce competition is holding car prices in check. And many people simply need to replace their cars, whether they were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy or because they’re just getting too old. Toprak predicts that Americans will buy a million more cars this year than they did in 2012. Ford thinks sales could reach 16 million.