Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story listed an incorrect year for Ford's last U.S. gain in market share and gave an incorrect sales percentage gain for Hyundai Group.
DETROIT -- Ford, Toyota, Subaru and Hyundai Group spurred a year-end U.S. sales rally that took some sting out of a painful year.
Overall, December sales of 1,030,096 light vehicles rose 15 percent from December 2008, when the credit crisis and a deepening recession dragged industry demand to 27-year lows. Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Sales and Subaru each rose by about a third last month, while Hyundai-Kia advanced 42 percent.
December's bounce was enough to boost full-year volume to 10.43 million, down 21 percent from 2008.
That was the lowest since 1982's 10.35 million sales and a sharp drop when compared with the rest of the decade. Through 2008, industry sales this decade had averaged 16.4 million.
But it's a distinct improvement from the first half of 2009, when the seasonally adjusted annual selling rate was 9.5 million. December's SAAR was 11.9 million, well ahead of analysts' expectations of 11 million or 11.1 million.
December was the third month this year with a year-over-year sales increase but perhaps the best signal yet that the U.S. auto industry is on the mend. August's 1 percent increase was fueled by the cash-for-clunkers government stimulus, and November's gain was an almost invisible 35 vehicles.
Still, automakers remain cautious about the pace of recovery this year. Ford Motor Co. expects 2010 U.S. sales to be between 11.5 million and 12 million. Sales boss Ken Czubay says last year's lessons were painful.
“2009 may be the most historic year in the automobile business. There were bankruptcies, bailouts, government stimulus,” he said. “I'm leaving my seat belt on because I think that volatility is still the new norm.”
American Honda, Nissan North America and Volkswagen Group also posted double-digit gains, and Mazda and BMW Group finished in positive territory.
Not everyone won in December. General Motors, Chrysler Group, Porsche and Mitsubishi all narrowly lost ground, with the sharpest decline being GM's 6 percent. The only big losers were Suzuki, down 48 percent, and Maserati, down 57 percent to 115 sales.
Ford's 16 percent sales decline for the year enabled it to gain ground on No. 1 GM and No. 2 Toyota Motor Sales and let Ford post its first improvement in annual market share in 14 years.
December was key. Last month Ford reported sales increases in each product category and for each brand. Ford's domestic-brand cars jumped 42 percent for the month and crossovers rose 51 percent. Ford domestic SUV sales gained 33 percent, but pickups and minivans were up 18 percent.
Ford brand sales rose 37 percent, while Lincoln gained 16 percent and Mercury a more modest 6 percent.
But South Korea's Hyundai Group is knocking down the walls around any notion of a Big 6, slashing the sales lead of No. 6 Nissan North America from more than a quarter of a million in 2008 to fewer than 35,000 units last year.
Subaru's 33 percent gain last month pushed its industry-leading advance for the year to 15 percent.
Nissan's 18 percent increase brought its tumble for the year to 19 percent.
Chrysler's 4 percent December decline left it with a 36 percent drop for the year. Porsche also fell last month, by 2 percent, for a 24 percent 2009 decline.
Before the release of today's results, analysts projected that U.S. auto sales would end the year on a slight upswing.
Jamie LaReau and Reuters contributed to this report