2014 finishes strong with 'plenty of room for upside'

A strong second half helped 2014 sales to 16.5 million, a gain of 6 percent from 15.6 million in 2013 and the best yearly total since 2006. Photo credit: DAVID PHILLIPS

UPDATED: 1/5/15 6:46 pm ET - adds details

Tempting incentives and clearer roads pulled U.S. consumers into dealerships for a big December to close another strong sales year.

Automakers sold 1.5 million light vehicles last month, up 11 percent. The seasonally adjusted annualized selling rate was 16.92 million, the third best month of the year behind August and November.

The year’ strong second half helped lift 2014 sales to 16.5 million, a gain of 6 percent from 15.6 million in 2013 and the best yearly total since 2006.

It is the fifth consecutive year of auto sales growth since 2009’s low of 10.4 million units.

Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota Division, forecast 2015 U.S. auto sales will increase for a sixth straight year, driven by low interest rates, pent-up demand and the continued emergence of Gen Y buyers.

“Right now, we’re looking at about 16.7 million,” he said today on a conference call, noting that Toyota prefers to forecast conservatively early in the year. “That would be the industry’s best year since 2005, with plenty of room for upside.”

TrueCar President John Krafcik said automaker margins increased in December despite incentives rising 6 percent from a year ago to $2,900 per vehicle. Industry average December incentives rose $161, but average transaction prices -- net including incentives -- were up $609 to $33,168.

“The industry sold 1.5 million vehicles with a moderate incentive level,” he said. “December was a very good month.”

Fiat Chrysler led all major automakers in December by jumping 20 percent, followed closely by General Motors at 19 percent. Close behind was Hyundai-Kia, up 14 percent, while Toyota Motor Sales gained 13 percent.

Four other major players had increases smaller than the December industry average. Nissan North America rose 7 percent, Volkswagen Group netted 4 percent. Both Ford Motor and American Honda eked out 1 percent increases.

Other highlights:

BMW recaptures luxury crown

  • BMW outsold Mercedes-Benz in 2014 to retake the U.S. luxury brand sales crown it lost a year ago.

Three marques topped the 300,000-unit level. BMW’s December sales jumped 11 percent to push it to 339,738 vehicles for the year. Excluding Sprinter commercial vans, Mercedes sold 330,391 light vehicles last year, while Lexus boosted volume 15 percent to close with 311,389 for the year.

The BMW total marked its best U.S. result and surpassed Lexus’ 2007 peak of 329,177. But Cadillac still holds the single-year U.S. luxury record: 350,813 in 1978.

Foreign-based brands have dominated U.S. luxury volume this century. Lexus held the sales title 2000 through 2010. BMW led in 2011 and 2012, but lost the crown to Mercedes in 2013 by 3,248 units.

Audi passes Cadillac, Acura

  • Audi climbed two spots higher on the U.S. luxury brand sales ladder in 2014, passing both Cadillac and Acura. Acura outsold Cadillac but not Audi, and remains the fifth best luxury seller.

In 2013, Cadillac sold 182,543 units, making it No. 4 behind Mercedes, BMW and Lexus and just ahead of Acura and Audi. But 2014 Caddy sales dropped 7 percent to 170,750 and Acura gained just 1 percent to 167,843. That opened the door for Audi to pass both with a 15 percent jump to 182,011 units.

Camaro tops Mustang again

  • Mustang sales jumped 66 percent to 9,511 in December, providing most of the full year’s growth for Ford’s pony car, but it was again outsold by the Chevrolet Camaro: 86,297 to 82,635.

    Subaru tops half-million mark

    Among the smaller automakers, Subaru jumped 24 percent in December, giving it a full-year 21 percent gain to top a half-million vehicles for the first time. Mitsubishi jumped 25 percent to 77,643 vehicles for the year.

    Mazda rose 8 percent in December, matching its full-year pace. Volvo Cars lost 8 percent in 2014. Jaguar Land Rover gained 2 percent, or 129 vehicles, in December, but still finished virtually flat in 2014.

    Pickups? Ford, by a nose

    Ford defended its full-size pickup sales crown in 2014 despite long shutdowns at two plants for model changeover. The F series outsold the combined General Motors twins, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra: 753,851 to 741,588.

    But throw in 11,073 late-year sales of two new GM mid-size pickups, the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, and Ford’s edge falls to 1,190.

Sit-highs outsell sit-lows

Light trucks outsold passenger cars in 2014 for the first time since 2011: 8.6 million to 7.9 million units.

Low fuel costs and automakers introducing a flurry of new crossover models fueled the comeback for light trucks, which also include pickups, vans and SUVs.

Passenger cars finished on top in 2013 and 2012.

Pickups sweep sales podium

Big pickups took the top three model sales spots in 2014. It’s no surprise that the Ford F-series returned as the most popular U.S. model with 753,851 or that the Chevrolet Silverado was again No. 2.

But with pump prices tumbling late in the year, Chrysler’s Ram pickup outsold the Toyota Camry sedan by 12,604 units in December. And that was enough for the Ram to capture the bronze and push Camry off the podium: 439,789 to 428,606.

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com -- Follow Jesse on Twitter: https://twitter.com/spartyjesse

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