After starting 2009 in truly abysmal fashion, the U.S. auto industry '” jump-started by this summer's Cash for Clunkers program '” has been picking up some serious momentum. December sales showed increases for nearly all of the major players, driven by some surprising performers.
The biggest shock undoubtedly comes from the folks at Dodge. I had to look once or thrice, but there's no getting around it: The much-beleaguered brand showed a full 24 percent year-over-year sales increase for December, led by 80+ percent jumps for both the Dodge Caliber and the Dodge Avenger, as well as a 61 percent rise for the Dodge Journey. (True, this doesn't include poor December numbers for the Ram trucks, which now, technically, are a division onto themselves, but Dodge still ekes out a 1 percent gain if they are put into the mix.)
Overall, Chrysler was down a mere 4 percent on the month, as soaring cars sales '” up 31 percent '” were dragged down by a 14 percent fall on the truck side. This has to be considered a pretty big moral victory for a company that has been in suspended animation for more than a year.
Another surprise came in the highly competitive midsize sedan segment: Sales of the Ford Fusion took another great leap forward, with December numbers moving ahead 83.5 percent. This caps off an incredibly strong year for Ford's midsizer, as it also rang up an annual increase of 22.4 percent. But this wasn't the unexpected part of the story. For that, we have to turn to GM, where the Chevrolet Malibu outsold the Fusion by some 500 units on the month, turning in an 11.6 percent increase for December.
Unfortunately, despite triple-figure sales increases for vehicles like the Chevrolet Equinox, Cadillac SRX and Buick LaCrosse, the General saw its core brands combine to deliver only a 2.2 percent sales bump in December, with Chevrolet down 1.5 percent.
GM in recent years has often seemed to be right on the verge of turning things around, and it looks like the company will start 2010 in the same position: General Motors has some hot products on sale now, with more to come, but it also has to invert its usual ratio of steps forward to steps back.
It's a stark contrast to Ford, which was hitting on all cylinders in December. The overall company saw sales shoot up a spectacular 32.8 percent, with every division and every current Ford vehicle except the Ford Crown Victoria seeing increases. Notable winners for the Blue Oval in December also included the Ford Taurus, which was up 109.7 and the Ford F-150, the only one of the big three pickups to see a December sales boost. Needless to say, the F-150 remained the best-selling U.S. vehicle on the market in 2009.
Things weren't quite so rosy for Toyota, but its overall December sales results, up 22.9 percent, show the company finally may be finding some new traction on the market after one of its worst all-around years ever. The Toyota Yaris, Toyota Camry, Toyota Corolla and Toyota Prius were all up in December, with the Toyota Avalon being the only one of the division's cars not to see an increase. Significantly, the Toyota Venza was the best-performing of the station wagon/SUV mashups, easily outselling the Honda Accord Crosstour and BMW X6.
Nissan and Honda also had strong Decembers, with sales up 19.4 percent and 15.6 percent, respectively. What's especially interesting when looking at these two is finding out that, for the second year in a row, the Nissan Versa bested the Honda Fit in terms of annual sales. This was buoyed by a December that saw Versa sales up 32.5 percent and Fit numbers down by 15.6 percent.
Of course, it's no surprise to find out that the three hottest auto companies of December were the three hottest auto companies for the entire year. Hyundai, Kia and Subaru all achieved the improbable in 2009, becoming the only three automakers to notch annual sales increases last year.
The difference is that Hyundai and Kia, offering much larger lineups, was able to spread the love around a lot more than Subaru. Of the eight nameplates currently offered by Hyundai, six saw December increases and five had annual boosts, led by major jumps from the Hyundai Genesis, Hyundai Accent and Hyundai Santa Fe. At Kia, seven different nameplates saw December improvements, with new products like the Kia Forte and Kia Soul proving to be winners in their first year of production.
But Subaru, despite its record-breaking 2009 sales, has built that success on exactly three vehicles: The Subaru Legacy, Subaru Outback and Subaru Forester. This doesn't take anything away from the company's results, but it does make me wonder how susceptible Subaru might be to changing customer preferences in 2010. Perhaps Toyota's recent investment in Subaru will give the latter the resources to expand its lineup to counter this potential weakness.
But beyond this, while I'm sure 2010 will bring plenty of its own surprises, I don't think continued success by Hyundai, Kia or Subaru will be among them '” if only because their continued success will no longer be all that surprising.