Well, that was a close call. With sales from January 2009 ranking just a few notches below abysmal, negative numbers in January 2010 would have seemed like a large step backward for the industry. Yet that's exactly the direction in which we were headed '” until strong fleet sales and certain difficulties at Toyota were factored into the equation.
Toyota saw its overall January sales drop 15.8 percent, by far the most of any of the mainstream automakers, and this despite the fact the company's recall problems only affected the last week or so of the month, and that Lexus actually saw a 5.4 percent sales bump during that time. The Toyota sales story going forward is likely to be an ugly one, and there's no need to belabor the obvious. But I will point out that the result could be more months in which the industry's overall numbers are weakened while sales at the individual automakers are improving.
The new Big 2 put up good numbers last month, with General Motors seeing sales increase 14.1 percent '” and 30 percent for its core brands '” and Ford improving by 25 percent. But it's important to note the mix here: Retail sales of Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC were up just 3 percent; in other words, surging fleet sales provided the majority of the good news at General Motors, buoyed by continuing impressive numbers in the midsize crossover segment. The Chevrolet Equinox was up another 67 percent, the GMC Terrain saw a 162 percent boost over the January '09 sales of its predecessor, and the Cadillac SRX saw an amazing 218 percent leap. I wasn't that geeked on the new SRX when it debuted, but I guess I missed the boat on this one '” GM claims the Caddy crossover also gained about 15 points of market share over last January, too.
It's a similar story at the Blue Oval: Overall sales were up 24 percent, but retail sales actually slipped by 5 percent; Ford fleet sales last month were more than twice those of January 2008.
Now, fleet sales are a bit of a double-edged sword: They don't pay as well as retail sales, and, in the recent past, OEMs have been cutting back to avoid becoming known only as suppliers of cheap rental cars. But today, analysts are looking to January's fleet increases as a good sign the economy is turning around, and I'll do the same.
The bottom line at the Blue Oval: Every Ford division product saw a sales increase except for the Ford Flex, which was down just .3 percent. Among the highlights: The Ford Fusion was up 49.4 percent, Ford Taurus increased by a whopping 121 percent and Ford Mustang was up 91 percent '” although it was still outsold by the Chevrolet Camaro.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the month came from Kia, which kept its string of sales increases alive by the smallest of margins: The South Korean automaker sold 22,123 last month and 22,096 in January 2009. Strong sales of the 2011 Kia Sorento nearly doubled the performance of last year's model in January 2009, and the Kia Rio had a good month, but neither could offset disappointing numbers for the Kia Forte compared to last year's Spectra, a disastrous month for the Kia Sportage, Kia Sedona and Kia Rondo, all of which saw triple-digit fall-offs.
For Honda, you could say the Honda Fit is living up to its name, with the company currently having a fit over the vehicle's slipping sales and a major recall. The numbers? Fit sales were down 38.4 percent, and about 120,000 units were recalled here in the U.S. for a switch problem that could cause fires to break out in the small Honda. Sales of the Honda Accord and Honda Civic remained strong, with the former up 35.6 percent and the latter up by 12.1 percent, but Honda is a company that's staggering under the weight of the Fit problem, disappointing sales of the Honda Insight hybrids, and a poor auto-show reception for its CR-Z hybrid sports car. The automaker has been desperately struggling with new products, but it's possible the new Honda Odyssey, set to debut later this month in Chicago, could help turn things around.
For most other OEMs, January pretty much went as expected. Chrysler sales were off 8.1 percent, dragged down by a 22 percent slip in sales of the Ram 1500. However, the company's much-maligned midsizers '” Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger '” along with the Dodge Journey, Jeep Compass, Dodge Caravan and even the Jeep Commander earned double-digit increases.
Also seeing a generous sales jump was Nissan, which continued to solidify its car lineup on sales of the Nissan Versa, up 18.2 percent; Nissan Sentra, up 40.9 percent; Nissan Altima, up 31.8 percent; and Nissan Maxima, up 51.8 percent. At this stage in the game, and especially given the Toyota troubles, Nissan is about one or two good crossovers '” or a successful Nissan LEAF debut '” away from making a major move in the U.S. market.
And while Subaru continues to set sales records, its sales mix continues to get further out of whack. Yes, the company's figures were up 28 percent as a whole, but notice the breakdown: Subaru Legacy numbers moved northward by 110 percent, and the Subaru Outback drove ahead by 117 percent; but the other three vehicles in the automaker's portfolio '” the Subaru Impreza, Subaru Forester and Subaru Tribeca '” all notched January losses.
Finally, to end things on a positive note '” and remind everyone out there just how nutty the industry can be, let's turn our attention to Volkswagen. VW earned one of January's biggest increases, with sales up 41.4 percent on positive performances by the Volkswagen Jetta, Volkswagen CC and Volkswagen Tiguan '” and a 239.1 percent lift in sales of the not-so-New Beetle Coupe!