Detroit's Big Three automakers reported solid December U.S. sales Wednesday, driving a strong 2011 performance and expectations for an even better 2012 as the industry slowly climbs out of a deep downturn.
Last year, the rebirth of the U.S. auto industry was solidified after years of bleeding balance sheets, painful restructuring and the government-backed bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler.
It also was a year that likely saw Toyota lose its global sales crown after inventories were crippled by the March 11 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, allowing Mercedes to overtake Toyota's Lexus as the best-selling luxury brand in the United States.
"It's now clear that auto sales should continue to grow in 2012 barring a shock to the system," said Don Johnson, who heads U.S. sales operations for General Motors.
Total industry sales rose 10.8% to 12.8 million vehicles in 2011, according to Autodata.
GM forecast that 2012 sales will reach 13.5 million to 14 million vehicles. That is still down significantly from the 15 million to 17 million vehicles sold annually in the dozen years leading up to the 2008 crash, but solid enough growth that GM, Ford and Chrysler should continue to post rich profits.
"I think this pace of growth is good for the industry and for the country," Johnson said in a conference call.
"It gives the industry the chance to really institutionalize the discipline that has allowed us to prosper at lower sales volumes."
GM's sales rose 5% to 234,351 in December and were up 14% at 2.5 million vehicles for the year.
Ford also forecast solid industry growth in 2012, with U.S. sales rising to 13.5 million to 14.5 million vehicles and global sales in a range of 75 million to 85 million vehicles.
"The momentum coming out of the fourth quarter of last year provides confidence that the lower end of this range is less likely," Ford chief economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick said in a conference call.
"At the same time we are well-aware of how quickly the business conditions can change, so we'll keep our focus on matching production to demand."
Ford's sales rose 10% to 210,140 in December and were up 11% at 2.1 million vehicles in 2011.
Chrysler, the No. 3 U.S. automaker, reported U.S. sales in December jumped 37% from a year earlier to the highest monthly level since May 2008.
For all of 2011, Chrysler sold 1.4 million vehicles, an increase of 26% from 2010.
"We were the fastest-growing automaker in the country, increasing our market share 1.3 percentage points during 2011," said Reid Bigland, Chrysler's head of U.S. sales.
A Rough Year for Toyota and Honda
Toyota saw U.S. sales drop seven percent to 1.6 million vehicles in 2011, largely due to supply shortages caused by the mega-disaster that struck Japan.
The Japanese firm's U.S. market share dropped 2.3 points to 12.3% and it is expected to lose the global sales crown it won from GM in 2008.
Inventories are not expected to return to "optimal" levels until the end of March even though global production returned to normal in October, said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA.
With 19 new or updated models hitting U.S. showrooms this year, Toyota expects sales to outpace the industry and jump 15% to 1.9 million vehicles, he added.
"We begin 2012 with high expectations fueled by a strengthening economy, increasing consumer confidence and the biggest surge of new and updated products in our history," Lentz said in a conference call.
Honda also took a massive hit from the tsunami and supply disruptions due to flooding in Thailand, with sales down 7.1% to 1.1 million vehicles for 2011.
"As we eagerly close one of the most challenging years American Honda has weathered, we are well-positioned for a strong 2012," said John Mendel, American Honda's sales chief.
Korean rivals Hyundai and Kia managed to extend a sales surge that began when consumers turned to their value-driven vehicles. Hyundai sales rose 20% to 645,691 vehicles in 2011, while Kia's sales jumped 36% to 485,492.
European brands outpaced their rivals, gaining 20% in 2011 while the Detroit Three posted a combined gain of 15% and sales of Asian marks grew by just 4%, according to Autodata.
Mercedes captured first place among luxury brands after sales rose an estimated 16% to 261,846 in 2011. BMW was not far behind as sales rose 13% to 248,073. Lexus sales fell 13% to 198,552 vehicles.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011