DETROIT (AP) — U.S. auto sales hit a five-year high in 2012, as low interest rates, improving consumer confidence and — most important — some great new cars drew Americans into dealerships.
Sales of new cars and trucks are expected to reach 14.5 million for 2012, up 13 percent from the year before. That not quite a return to the boom times of 2005, when sales hit 17 million. But sales are 40 percent higher than they were at the depths of the recession in 2009.
Here are the highlights and lowlights of 2012, and what's coming from the industry in 2013:
Volkswagen saw a 35-percent jump in sales in 2012, one of the biggest increases in the industry. The new Passat midsize car was the driver, with sales up 413 percent over 2011. Chrysler's sales jumped 21 percent thanks to strong sales of the Dodge Caravan minivan and the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV.
Both General Motors and Ford lost the market share they gained in 2011 when the earthquake hurt their Japanese competitors. GM saw a lackluster 4 percent increase for the year, hurt by weak truck and Cadillac sales. Ford's sales were up 5 percent after new versions of some of its biggest sellers — the Ford Escape SUV and Fusion sedan — had to be recalled for safety problems.
JAPAN IS BACK
Japanese automakers struggled with low inventories for much of 2011 after the earthquake hurt supplies. But sales picked up in the first few months of 2012 and never looked back. Toyota's U.S. sales were up 28 percent and the Camry sedan had its best year since 2008. Honda's rose 24 percent.
Lots of cars had a big year. Among the standouts: the Chevrolet Sonic, which quickly became the best-selling subcompact in the U.S.; the new Volkswagen Beetle, which was up 400 percent over 2011; the Honda CR-V, which set an all-time annual sales record after hitting the market at the end of 2011; and the Toyota Prius, which jumped 73 percent thanks to new wagon, subcompact and plug-in versions.
Small cars were big sellers as gas reached $3.60 per gallon, which AAA said was the most expensive annual average on record. The Ford Focus compact jumped more than 40 percent and outsold Ford's midsize Fusion. Honda Civic sales jumped 44 percent and nearly outsold the Accord. Sales of the Fiat 500 mini car more than doubled.
Electric cars continued to struggle because of high price tags and worries about lack of places to plug in. GM cut production of the Chevrolet Volt in the spring and later began offering big discounts to juice sales. The Volt ended 2012 with total sales of 23,461, which was triple its sales in 2011. But the electric Nissan Leaf was up just 1.5 percent to 9,819, far short of Nissan's goal of selling 20,000 Leafs in the U.S. this year.
Even though the fiscal cliff deal raised tax rates on individuals making more than $400,000 a year, carmakers don't see a big impact on sales. Ford's economist says only 2 percent of new-vehicle buyers are in the top tax bracket, and Audi of America President Scott Keogh said the increase won't cut disposable income enough to hurt luxury sales. He says the average income of an Audi buyer is about $191,000, not in the status-conscious top tax bracket. "We are not what I would call a frivolous, over-the-top vanity purchase," he said.
GM and Ford investors had a happy finish to 2012. Ford's stock price is trading at more than $13, up 22 percent over the past year. It has climbed steadily since October, when the company announced an overhaul of its struggling European operations. General Motors' stock price has jumped 42 percent in the past year and is now nearly $30. The carmaker turned a strong profit over the summer. It also restructured in Europe and has started buying back the government's stake in the company.