UPDATED: 1/3/14 6:54 pm ET
Despite flat December volume, the U.S. industry closed out 2013 with 15.6 million light-vehicles sales, the fourth straight year with a gain of a million or more units.
December sales totaled 1,358,734, up only a fraction of a percent from a strong year-ago period. The seasonally adjusted annual selling rate was 15.4 million, well below the 16.4 million SAAR of November, which had been the best monthly sales pace since February 2007.
Automakers acknowledged winter storms limited December sales. But they were more focused on 2013's overall gain of 8 percent and were upbeat about this year.
"There was some bad winter weather," Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle said in a conference call. "That probably hampered things slightly."
Toyota Division General Manager Bill Fay noted that industry retail sales rose by 87,000 units while December fleet volume declined.
Fay said most independent forecasters expect 2014 industry sales volume to top 16 million -- "some as high as 16.4 million" -- but Toyota Motor Sales' planning target is a 16 million year.
"We expect the auto industry will continue as a major factor in the ongoing economic recovery and also benefit from that recovery," he said.
Analyst Alec Gutierrez of Kelley Blue Book said December sales came in below forecasts more because traffic softened after an early surge than because of month-end storms.
"Even blue skies wouldn't have gotten us to a 16 million SAAR," he said.
TrueCar.com analyst Eric Lyman said despite a soft December, 2013 was "another great year for auto sales." He noted that a year ago, the industry was anticipating 2013 sales in the low- to mid-15 million range.
"So 15.6 million outperforms what most expected," he said.
While December was flat, major automakers were all over the place. Nissan North America led the winners with an 11 percent increase to 109,758 units. Chrysler Group climbed 6 percent, while both Ford Motor and American Honda rose 2 percent.
The big loser was Volkswagen Group of America, down 12 percent overall. The namesake brand lost 23 percent in December and finished the year off 7 percent, offsetting solid gains at Audi and Porsche. The VW brand's December loss of almost 10,000 units pulled the entire group's full-year results from positive to negative, off 1 percent.
General Motors lost 6 percent in December, largely because of weaker sales of its new-generation large pickups, the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, as it tries to establish higher transaction prices for the new models.
Toyota Motor Sales and Hyundai-Kia Automotive lost 2 percent in December.
In some closely watched races:
- Hyundai-Kia edged Nissan Motor Co. by 7,542 units to remain the sixth-biggest automaker in the U.S. market. Hyundai-Kia's recent hot streak drove it to back-to-back wins. The South Koreans won by 88,649 units in 2011 and 118,950 in 2012.
- Jeep maintained its lead over GMC as king of the truck-only brands, but the lead dropped to 39,553 units this year from 60,250 in 2012.
- For the second straight year, the Honda Civic topped the Toyota Corolla for top-selling compact car honors, and widened its lead to 34,000 units.