By David Phillips, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Jan. 6, 2016) —The U.S. auto industry set a sales record in 2015 as solid December gains by the biggest auto makers pushed the annual tally above the 17.4 million mark set in 2000.
With all but Porsche reporting year-end results, auto makers chalked up sales of nearly 17.42 million light vehicles last year, according to the Automotive News Data Center. A projected December increase of about 9 percent was one of the year's strongest.
Among the largest auto makers, Nissan Motor Co. was the biggest gainer, with a 19-percent jump from December 2014 levels. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) US climbed 13 percent.
Volume rose 11 percent at Toyota Motor Corp. and 10 percent at Honda Motor Co. Ford Motor Co. volume increased 8.3 percent while General Motors Co. deliveries rose 5.7 percent.
Heading into 2016, most analysts had forecast a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate (SAAR) above 18 million and a 12-month total of 17.5 million light vehicles. GM and FCA said Jan. 6 the SAAR would come in below 18 million, yet GM held to a projected annual total of 17.5 million.
U.S. sales continue to be driven by low gasoline prices, pent-up demand, widespread credit availability, an increase in leasing and employment gains. Trucks, SUVs and crossovers continued to set the pace last month for industry volume.
“2015 was a standout year for the auto industry,” Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager for the Toyota division, said in a statement. “Best-ever light truck sales helped the Toyota division earn the retail sales crown for the fourth consecutive year.”
Volume rose 12 percent at the Toyota brand, 3.8 percent at Lexus and 44 percent at Scion last month.
Lexus passed Mercedes-Benz, but BMW held on in December to top the luxury segment in 2015 for its fourth sales crown in five years. The race was tight until the end. BMW finished 2015 with luxury sales of 346,023, followed by Lexus with 344,601 and Mercedes with 343,088. All three brands, along with Audi, set annual U.S. sales records last year.
Deliveries at Honda Motor Co. rose 9.9 percent, with the Honda brand up 12 percent and Acura off 5.5 percent. The Honda brand set an annual record with 2015 deliveries of 1,409,386, up 2.6 percent.
Subaru's U.S. sales advanced 13 percent last month, helping the brand to another annual milestone of 582,675 cars and light trucks sold, up 13 percent.
Among smaller auto makers, December sales rose 18 percent at Mazda on strong truck volume, and 21 percent at Mitsubishi. Volvo saw volume surge 90 percent in December and 24 percent for the year.
Enhanced year-end discounts and five sales weekends in December put a solid cap on a sixth consecutive year of growth. There were also two extra selling days last month compared with December 2014.
Nissan's December boosted the auto maker's gain for the year to 7.1 percent. The Nissan brand advanced 18 percent last month, helping set an annual sales record of 1,351,420. Infiniti volume rose 26 percent in December.
FCA, behind another stellar showing at the Jeep brand and more-generous holiday deals, extended its streak of gains to 69 consecutive months.
Deliveries increased 42 percent at Jeep, 4 percent at Ram, 6 percent at Dodge and 1 percent at Fiat, but volume slipped 21 percent at the Chrysler brand.
Overall, FCA's U.S. truck sales jumped 22 percent while car demand slid 19 percent.
Jeep set an annual U.S. sales record with 865,028 deliveries. The Ram truck brand also posted its best sales year since it was spun off from Dodge in 2009.
Fiat Chrysler's U.S. incentives averaged $3,553 last month, or 12 percent higher than December 2014, TrueCar estimated.
Ford deliveries were aided by an 8.1 percent gain at the Ford division and a 12 percent increase at Lincoln.
GM's 5.7 percent increase included an 8 percent rise in retail sales. Volume rose 1.7 percent at Buick, 2.1 percent at Chevrolet, 13 percent at GMC and 29 percent at Cadillac.
The Jeep Cherokee midsize SUV, Compass compact crossover and Renegade subcompact crossover recorded their best-ever monthly sales, while the Wrangler midsize SUV, pictured, and Patriot compact crossover set December volume records.
On Jan. 4, Edmunds projected that leases will account for a record 29 percent of all new U.S. retail sales in 2015. That is up 2 percentage points from 27 percent in 2014 and compares with a leasing rate of 16.6 percent just 10 years ago.
The growth in leasing is being spurred by higher vehicle and transaction prices. The average new-vehicle transaction price in 2015 was $33,188, up 2.5 percent from $32,386 in 2014, according to Edmunds.
Based on a Bloomberg survey of analysts, December deliveries are projected to rise 17 percent at Hyundai-Kia, 10 percent at Honda Motor Co., and 0.2 percent at scandal-plagued Volkswagen Group.
Of the 14 auto brands that set U.S. sales records in 2014, four — Jeep, Land Rover, Porsche and Subaru — established new records in 2015 before December. Hyundai and Kia also set all-time highs for U.S. deliveries in 2015.
Overall, average industry incentives per vehicle rose 3.9 percent from December 2014 to $3,063 last month, TrueCar estimates.
The year-end deals and red-tag sales were plentiful across the U.S. last month:
- Kia dangled offers of no payments for five months, with the first two monthly payments — capped at $1,000 total — paid for by the company. That's on top of 0 percent financing for up to 66 months.
- Average savings of $3,014, or nearly 15 percent, on a 2016 Jeep Compass Sport with all-wheel drive, according to TrueCar.
- Zero-percent financing on a 2015 GMC Sierra 1500 for up to 72 months.
- A 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan available with zero percent financing for up to 60 months.
- Hyundai's 2015 Genesis, with all-wheel drive, was available for lease for $370 a month for 36 months and no down payment.
The final tally for 2015 will mark the longest streak of annual gains since the 1920s. The sharp downturn of 2008-09 roiled the industry and saw two U.S. auto makers — General Motors and Chrysler Group — seek bankruptcy protection under government supervision.
“It's truly remarkable that the auto industry is finishing off its best year ever just six years after the depths of the Great Recession,” analyst Jessica Caldwell of Edmunds.com said.
“Low-APR offers and tumbling gas prices are making it easy for shoppers to buy or lease a new car, but don't overlook the products themselves. If you're buying a new car today, you're getting a safer, more fuel- efficient and more technologically packed vehicle than ever before.”
Automotive News reporters Nick Bunkley and Amy Wilson contributed to this story, which appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.