Overall sales rose by more than 56,000, or 0.3 percent, over the 2015 record. It was the seventh straight year of sales gains, an impressive streak and rebound for an industry that was down on its heels during the Great Recession. Volume rose 3 percent in December, well ahead of forecasts, pushing 2016’s final sales tally to 17,539,052 cars and light trucks.
The seasonally adjusted, annualized sales rate hit 18.38 million, the highest pace of the year and fifth-highest of all time. Analysts polled by Bloomberg projected that industrywide deliveries would come in at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 17.6 million. U.S. light-vehicle sales totaled 15.85 million through November. That was just 6,418 ahead of the year-earlier pace, a clear sign the market had hit a plateau. Yet there was apparently more steam left for December than analysts expected.
Company by Company
Volume rose 10% at GM for a second straight month. Nissan Motor Co. advanced 9.7% and American Honda posted a 6.4% gain. Toyota Motor Corp. rose 2% and Ford Motor Co. edged up 0.1%, while Fiat Chrysler recorded its third straight double-digit decline. All four of GM’s U.S. brands rose. Chevrolet led the way with a 13% increase, followed by GMC (5.8%), Cadillac (3.2%) and Buick (2.8%).
GM said its rental sales rose in December but finished 2016 down nearly 74,000 vehicles, or 18%, compared with 2015. The company said its retail deliveries — a key priority in recent years — rose more than 3% last month. Nissan Motor’s December increase reflected an 8.3% gain at its namesake division and a 21% jump at Infiniti.
The Nissan division set an all-time record with 1,426,130 U.S. sales in 2016, up 5.5%. And in a sign of how strong light-truck demand has become across the industry, the Rogue crossover topped the Altima sedan to become Nissan’s top-selling U.S. model for the first time, with 2016 sales of 329,904, or an increase of 15%.
Volume rose 6.9% at the Honda division and 1.9% at Acura. For the year, Honda Division’s U.S. sales rose 4.8% to a record 1,476,582.
At Ford Motor, sales were off 0.8% at the Ford division and up 18% at Lincoln. Toyota said volume edged up 2.6% at the Toyota division but slipped 0.5% at Lexus last month.
Deliveries dropped 10% at FCA US behind a 6% decline at Jeep and a 34% drop in fleet shipments. Ram was the only FCA US brand to gain last month, with a 10% rise. Jeep and Ram posted U.S. sales records last year. Volume dropped 1.9% at Hyundai but rose 0.2 % at Kia.
Sales rose for the second straight month at the VW brand, but declined 7.6% for the year. At Mazda, volume dipped 1.8% last month. December deliveries dropped 6.4%at Mitsubishi and 7% at Mini.
The December results among major automakers topped many forecasts. GM sales were predicted to rise 4.4%, based on the average analyst estimate compiled by Bloomberg. Deliveries at Fiat Chrysler, which has discontinued compact and midsize sedans, were projected to drop 14%. Volumes at Ford, Toyota, Honda and Nissan were all forecast to slip less than 3%. Among other brands, Infiniti, Kia, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Subaru, Audi and Porsche also set annual U.S. sales records in 2016.
Light trucks, led by crossovers, continue to drive the market and accounted for a record 60.7% of all light-vehicle deliveries in 2016. For the year, car demand skidded 8.9% while light-truck demand advanced 7.4%. Last month featured one fewer selling day than December 2015 and one more weekend.
Automakers and dealers used heavy promotions and generous deals to lure consumers to showrooms last month. A post-election bounce in U.S. equity markets also provided a lift to industry sales in December, some analysts say.
“Key economic indicators, especially consumer confidence, continue to reflect optimism about the U.S. economy and strong customer demand continues to drive a very healthy U.S. auto industry,” Mustafa Mohatarem, GM’s chief economist, said on Jan. 4. “We believe the U.S. auto industry remains well-positioned for sales to continue at or near record levels in 2017.”
ALG estimates that average incentives on new vehicles spiked 20% to $3,673 last month compared with December 2015. Among the biggest spenders on December discounts were the Detroit 3 and Volkswagen Group. Even Subaru, which has been able to offer some of the industry’s leanest new-vehicle deals, saw average incentives more than double to $1,162 last month, ALG says.
Since the 2008-09 Great Recession, U.S. light-vehicle sales have grown by more than a million units a year on average while delivering seven straight annual gains, the longest streak since 1909-17.
Pent-up demand, more leasing, favorable finance deals and steady job growth have driven new-vehicle sales since the downturn. But analysts warn that rising interest rates and a peaking retail market will force automakers to cut production this year.
“Substantial incentive hikes … haven’t resulted in retail growth, while inventories continue to grow,” said Tim Fleming, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “An increasing supply of used cars, especially off-lease units, is already putting pressure on residual values, which could impact the sustainability of today’s high levels of leasing. We are looking for manufacturers to cut production in the new year to better match slowing consumer demand and alleviate the need for elevated incentives.”