On the whole, 2000 was a banner year for the U.S. auto industry. But below the surface, this pattern stood out: Import brands gained market share while the Big 3 lost.
Ford Motor Co. slipped seven-tenths of a point, to 24.1 percent. DaimlerChrysler dropped a full point, to 15.7 percent. And General Motors' 28.3 percent share for the year was its lowest since 1926 - and 1.1 percentage points below 1999.
'Our sales performance is clearly not what we want it to be ... but the emphasis is on profitable growth, not to buy share,' said Bill Lovejoy, group vice president of North America vehicle sales, service and marketing. GM sales fell only 1.3 percent for the year, but that included a 20.9 percent plunge in December.
As expected, overall U.S. sales set a record of 17.4 million light vehicles for the year. Despite a drop in each of the last three months, the 2000 total was 2.7 percent ahead of 1999. It was the second yearly record in a row and an unprecedented fifth consecutive year above 15 million sales.
It took 13 years to break the old record of 16 million, set in 1986. Unlike the 1999 record, it looks as though the 2000 peak will last a while. December sales fell 11.1 percent below the year-ago month, to 1.2 million.
The ups and the downs
Other 2000 sales highlights:
Each of the Big 3 lost market share for the year in both cars and light trucks. Among the leading Japanese retailers in the United States, Honda Division, Toyota Division and Nissan Division light trucks all set annual sales records.
South Korean imports hit a record 473,357 for the year, up 43.6 percent from 1999.
At the bottom of the pile percentagewise, Plymouth sales plunged 67 percent. Oldsmobile fell 17.9 percent. Those two brands are being phased out. But Mercury also dropped 18 percent. Jeep fell 10.6 percent. And Buick was down 9.2 percent.
Lexus was the best-selling luxury brand for 2000, with record U.S. sales of 206,037. That was just 423 units ahead of Mercedes, the 1999 winner. Cadillac was fifth, trailing Lexus, Mercedes, Lincoln and BMW. Lexus sold more light trucks than cars for the first time. And for the first time, the M class sport-utility was the best-selling Mercedes.
Honda Division had record sales of just over 1 million for the year, the first time the Honda brand has topped that mark. Acura fell just short of the record it set in 1991.
Ford Motor Co. sold a record 445,157 Explorers in 2000, but Explorer sales were off 25.4 percent in December. Buyers may have been waiting for the redesigned Explorer that goes on sales March 1.
2001 is a guessing game
Among the Big 3, Ford sales fared best last year, down just 0.1 percent. But Ford's total sales dropped 18.2 percent in December.
The Ford F-series pickup was America's top-selling light vehicle for the 19th year in a row, with record sales barely ahead of last year's mark.
The Ford Taurus was the third in car sales for the year, behind the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.
Paul Ballew, general director of global market and industry analysis for GM, said the drop for the entire market in November and December was steeper than expected. U.S. sales overall fell 3.4 percent in November.
Still, forecasters continue to expect sales to fall only slightly in 2001 and to stay above 16 million. But Ford Motor Co. last week trimmed 500,000 sales from an earlier forecast. It now predicts sales of 15.5 to 16 million for the year.
John Casesa, auto industry analyst for Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York, said the Federal Reserve's surprise half-point cut in interest rates last week won't offset other immediate problems, such as high inventories. 'We contend (that) the potential for an advance in the auto sector due to Federal Reserve rate cuts will be marginal and limited in duration,' he said.
Light trucks make gains
European and Japanese makes posted big gains for the year in light-truck sales.
In 2000, Honda and Acura combined sold a record 276,805 light trucks. That was 3.3 percent of total U.S. light-truck sales, up from 2.7 percent in 1999.
Spokesman Art Garner said American Honda expects to sell even more trucks this year, with as many as 60,000 Acura MDX sport-utilities compared with 9,750 in 2000.
The three biggest Japanese makers had a record combined light-truck share of 14.9 percent for 2000, up from 13.1 percent in 1999. The three are Toyota-Lexus, Nissan-Infiniti and Honda-Acura.
Said Dick Colliver, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co.: 'The competition is brutal with new entries and record incentives. But we're still very bullish.'
Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin contributed to this report