As automakers prepare to pop champagne corks to mark the biggest sales year in history, one thing is clear: New products have kept the market alive this year.
Make after make reported record sales in November, topping the peaks of November 1998. The industry chalked up 1,280,109 sales of new cars and light trucks for the month - 11.7 percent higher than a year ago. As of last week, several analysts were predicting full-year sales of about 16.8 million units. The current record is 16,026,426, set in 1986.
Trucks grew less than cars in November. Truck sales increased just 9.9 percent from a year ago, and car sales rose 13.6 percent.
But in case after case, new models, new designs and new segments are pushing this year's sales over the top of the mountain.
At Ford Motor Co., the small Focus sedan, introduced in late September, exploded with more than 15,000 November sales. The venerable Mustang, redesigned for 2000, saw an 8 percent increase in November and is poised for its best sales year in almost two decades. Even the once-sagging Taurus - introduced in early November as a 2000 model with more family-friendly styling - notched a sales gain of 28 percent for November.
Volvo's new 40-series cars helped lift the entire Volvo lineup 22.6 percent. And Jaguar is on a record-setting course for the year, thanks to its new S-Type sedan.
'The industry's big r&d budgets are really paying off,' acknowledged Jim Press, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
TOYOTA IS STRONG
Toyota Division rang up a 15 percent November sales jump, and Lexus was up 20 percent on the strength of its sport-utilities. Lexus car sales trailed November 1998.
For Toyota Division, Corolla and Camry sales were down, but the new Tundra full-sized pickup had almost 6,700 sales for the month, and the all-new Avalon returned to life with a 52 percent rise over November 1998.
Nissan Division rose a stunning 24.7 percent for the month, largely on the performance of its new Xterra sport-utility, and Volkswagen of America rocketed 63 percent ahead of last year, thanks in large measure to the redesigned Jetta.
The Escalade sport-utility pushed Cadillac's total ahead of last November's.
THE VIEW FROM GM
Paul Ballew, General Motors' director for international market and industry analysis, said last week that other GM lines showed promise in November - even though the numbers suggested otherwise. He noted that while Oldsmobile car sales were down almost 20 percent, it was due to a conscious effort to limit sales to daily rental fleets. On an actual retail basis, he said, the products are performing well.
But even as the industry prepared to make sales history, GM and the other two Detroit automakers all lost market share to imports in November. Despite the continued uptick in volume, DaimlerChrysler is down more than a half a point for the year to date; Ford is down more than a point, and GM is flat - despite nearly 400,000 additional GM sales so far this year.
Ballew indicated that GM expects to make up lost ground in the coming months as production of other new products increases.
He noted that GM has several key new cars and trucks in the mid-launch phase, including the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the Pontiac Bonneville and the Saturn L series.
Several of Ford's perennial light-truck sales achievers stumbled in November, including the Explorer and Expedition sport-utilities and the Ranger pickup. It was again the newest of the new - the mammoth Excursion - that brought in new sales for the month: 4,572 of them. And in the coming months, Ford plans to launch a new Explorer and a Mazda-based small sport-utility.
'I think what we're seeing happen right now is the consumer is looking for something new and different,' ventured Frank Maguire, vice president of sales for Volkswagen of America Inc. 'You can find many products that look alike. Or you can buy a product that doesn't look like the others.'
Analysts continue to be optimistic about the market, even though it has slowed marginally from the late summer. 'The selling rate is down, but consumers are still in the game,' said Steve Girsky of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.
Toyota's Press does not believe the market will drop significantly any time soon.
'My belief is that the U.S. market is simply larger than it used to be,' he said. 'We're adding households. We're building more homes with three-car garages. Our dealers have even reported an increase in the number of cash buyers.'