Auto Industry Ends Tumultuous Year with Mixed Results

2009 may have been an awful year, but the auto industry managed to end it on a high note as consumers sought year-end bargains.

Ford Motor (F) reported U.S. sales rose 34% in December compared to a year ago. General Motors, meanwhile, reported sales slipped 6% in December, but rose 13% within its remaining four "core" brands. Even struggling Chrysler Group managed to stave off heretofore double-digit drops in monthly sales to just 3.7% compared to 2008 while boosting December sales 36% above November's figures.Asian car makers fared equally well, with Toyota Motor (TM) and Honda Motor (HMC) each reporting higher December sales figures, up 32% and 24%, respectively, versus 2008 numbers. Nissan Motors said sales rose 18% from a year ago, while Hyundai Motor Group, maker of Hyundai and Kia vehicles, reported a year-over-year rise of 42%.

But even as car makers managed to move more vehicles off dealers' lots in December, most reported lower overall sales for the year. The decline in sales ranged from 15% at Ford to 36% at Chrysler. Industrywide, expectations are that sales fell 20% for the year. That number might have been worse if not for last summer's popular "cash-for-clunkers" program, which is credited for boosting sales at a time when consumers weren't keen on buying.

Despite the yearly sales falloff, Ford said posted its first full-year market-share gain since 1995 even as it reported sales slipped 15% for the year. GM reported that it also picked up market share, gaining 2 percentage points in the final months of the year when compared to the third quarter. The gain "demonstrates that we are strengthening our brands," said Susan Docherty, vice president for U.S. sales. "We are delivering a healthier sales mix and earning consumer confidence" through introduction of new models.

Struggling Chrysler, meanwhile, sold its fewest number of cars in 47 years but managed even as it kept the lid on year-over-year monthly sales. The Auburn Hills, Mich.-based company, now run by Italy's Fiat, sold just over 931,000 cars and truck last year. The last time Chrysler sold fewer than 1 million vehicles was 1962.

When compared to the previous year, Chrysler saw 2009 sales fall 36%, capping a tumultuous year in which the company sought and received federal bailout money and wend its way through bankruptcy. Analysts remain skeptical about the fate of Chrysler. With models that few consumers want and very few new ones in the pipeline, the company's prospects appear dubious at best. "Surviving as an entity is a major, major issue," says George Magliano, director automotive research for North America at IHS Global Insights.

Ford, meanwhile, has managed to win over customers in some cases simply by staying afloat. Moreover, its models strike a chord with American drivers, as sales of some models last month suggest. Sales of Ford's Fusion mid-sized sedan, for example, rose 83%, setting a new record for December. Full-year sales of the Fusion, named by Motor Trend magazine as its 2010 Car of the Year, rose 22.4% to a total 147,569 units.

Analysts say Ford has picked up sales in part because it was the only U.S. car maker not to take bailout money under the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program. General Motors' decision to cut four of its brands is also believed to have benefited Ford as well as Asian manufacturers.
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