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Detroit automakers revved up sales in 2011

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The three Detroit-area automakers reported strong sales gains in 2011, as low interest rates and slowly rising consumer confidence combined for the domestic auto industry’s best year since 2008.

Chrysler posted a 26 percent sales increase in 2011, General Motors sales were up 13 percent, and Ford sales increased 11 percent. Analysts noted that all three companies gained market share in 2011.

The increases built on a turnaround that began after General Motors and Chrysler were put into bankruptcy in 2009, leading the federal government to take a large ownership stake in the two companies.

Despite some severe bumps in the overall economy, the nation’s auto showrooms were buzzing last year, analysts said. Automakers sold about 12.8 million cars and trucks in the United States, up 10 percent over the 11.6 million vehicles sold in 2010. Despite the increase, that was far below the record 17.4 million vehicles sold in 2000.

“It is a long, slow progressive recovery, and 2011 really fits into that, when it is all said and done,” said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president at LMC Automotive, a forecasting company. “Generally speaking, it was a good year even though the volume isn’t where it was historically.”

Domestic auto sales are expected to climb further this year. LMC expects about 13.8 million vehicles to be sold in the United States, while the auto forecasting firm Polk projects that 13.7 million cars and trucks will be sold. GM, meanwhile, projects 2012 sales to be 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,” Don Johnson, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales operations, said in a statement. “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 grown in 2012, barring a shock to the system.”

Even with those sunny projections, analysts say domestic auto sales will not reach pre-recession levels of more than 16 million until 2015.

Toyota, which was among the automakers hard hit by the Japanese tsunami, saw its U.S. sales slip by 5.7 percent last year. Honda experienced a 6.8 percent decline.

Nissan vehicles set a U.S. record as sales rose 17.3 percent over 2010.

Combined U.S. sales for Hyundai and Kia also reached new heights in 2011, gaining 26 percent, to a record 1.13 million cars and light trucks. Volkswagen reported strong gains.

Last year’s sales rise at GM was led by double-figure percentage increases in Chevrolets, GMCs and Buicks. Cadillac sales were up 3.7 percent.

Last month, the company had strong gains in sales of the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic. Similarly, sales of the Chevrolet Cruze were up 54 percent and Camaro sales rose 20 percent over the previous December.

GM reported that it sold more than 1,500 Chevrolet Volts in December, marking the best month for the hybrid vehicle.

Chrysler sales were paced by strong gains in its Jeep Grand Cherokee and Wrangler over the past month. In addition, it had increases in sales of Chrysler 200s and 300s, as well as the new Dodge Charger.

Ford had gains in sales of its the Fiesta and Mustang, as well as continued strong sales of the Fusion. The F-Series pickup remained its top-selling truck.

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