Rev those sales engines: December is crunch time

I love December. Every year it turns into racin' time, the homestretch that inevitably intensifies the yearlong competition between any automakers or brands that are still close after 11 months.

And in the U.S. auto market this year, we have some doozies.

After 11 months, it's still not clear:

Will Subaru outsell Volkswagen?

Subaru widened the gap in November by outselling the VW brand 20,792 to 20,189. Now the 11-month lead for the Japanese brand is more than 4,000 -- 237,126 vs. 232,963.

Will Hyundai-Kia bump Nissan from the "Big Six"?

In 2008, Nissan North America outsold the Korean pair by 276,000 units. Hyundai-Kia cut that lead to about 35,000 in 2009. Both automakers are outperforming the market through 11 months, but Hyundai-Kia has grabbed the lead, 819,250 to 814,840.

Will Mercedes unseat Lexus as the top U.S. luxury brand?

Lexus has been top dog in the U.S. market every year since 2000. But this year it's a three-way race. And depending on how you feel about Sprinter vans, you can score Mercedes-Benz as No. 1 ahead of Lexus or No. 3 behind BMW. The kicker is bringing Sprinter commercial vans to America with Mercedes-Benz badges. Exclude Sprinters (and no jokes comparing its luxury level with the original Mercedes G class), and it's Lexus 201,769, BMW 196,833 and Mercedes 196,376. Include Sprinters? Then it's Mercedes at No. 1 with 203,556.

And will Toyota sales fall?

Every major automaker has boosted sales this year, but Toyota Motor Sales is only up a total of 3,818 units out of 1.6 million units after 11 months. Four of the past five months have been losers. If Toyota, Lexus and Scion don't sell at least 184,042 vehicles this month, the automaker will finish below 2009.Watching these races is more than idle curiosity. Close races attract real money. Factories fluff up customer cash, boost financing and pump up lease subsidies. Dealers love tight races because dealer cash, the stuff the public can't see, usually swells.

But tight races also boost the careers and pocketbooks of the individual warriors fighting for bragging rights. Dealers get more factory cash. Car salesmen get extra spiffs.

And the winners get more than glory. Factory executives get sweeter bonuses. Top-producing dealers don't hurt their chances on the intangibles -- everything from vehicle allocations to consideration for new franchises. Nobody's career track is hurt.

Nothing like a race to liven up December.