Another year brings another chance for the U.S. auto industry to climb out of the seemingly bottomless pit into which it plunged in 2008.
Oh, sure, 2010 was better than 2009, but only 11 percent better, and 2009 was the industry's worst sales year since 1982. So what's ahead? This year will be better than 2010, but it will be far below the 16 million that the industry had come to regard as a normal sales year.
Most predictions for 2011 range from 12.5 to 13 million. Better, but still not good. One daring analyst believes sales could reach 14 million this year because of the greater availability of consumer credit. Makes sense, but it's still a reach.
January sales of 819,938 were encouraging, climbing 17 percent above those of the year-earlier month. Sales in January 2010 exceeded January 2009 by only 6 percent. Should monthly sales continue to grow at a 17 percent pace, this year would come in at 13.6 million. Not bad, but still well below the 16.2 million of 2007.
Another good sign: Each of the Detroit 3 gained ground in January. Domestic sales for both General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group were up 23 percent over last year, and Ford Motor Co.'s sales rose 13 percent.
Lexus-Cadillac: Dead heat
And the once-invincible Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. continues to recover from its multitude of 2010 disasters. January sales were up 17 percent. Toyota brand sales rose a satisfying 24 percent, but Lexus took a bath, down 17 percent.
Lexus beat Cadillac by only 279 sales in January. A year ago, Lexus outsold the GM brand by 7,077 units.
On a percentage basis, Cadillac posted the biggest gain of any brand, up 49 percent. Its GM bedfellows, Buick and GMC, were fifth with gains of 32 percent. In between were Jaguar, up 48 percent; Jeep, up 47 percent, and Mitsubishi, up 37 percent.
GM and Chrysler gained market share in January. GM added 1 percentage point; Chrysler gained four-tenths of a point. Ford Motor dropped six-tenths of a point. Ford sales rose 13 percent, but the market was up 17 percent. When you don't outperform the market, your share dips.
F series still reigns
Trucks outsold cars for the fourth month in a row in January, but it was a close race. The split was trucks, 50.4 percent; cars, 49.6 percent. Numerically, trucks won by 6,614 units.
Import-badged vehicles continue to outsell Detroit 3 domestics by a goodly margin. In January, imports had 54.1 percent of the market, a bit less than their 54.9 percent a year ago.
Chevrolet snatched the sales lead from Ford brandin January. Ford was on top most of 2010 and was the full-year winner. The Toyota brandwas in third place for the month.
In the nameplate category, it was same old, same old: The Ford F-series pickup. There probably are a few people in the auto industry who remember when the F series was not the nation's best-selling nameplate, but those folks are hard to find.
On the car side, the Toyota Corolla-Matrix was the January leader, displacing the Toyota Camry, which was the winner in 2010 and several years before that. Following the Corolla-Matrix were the Camry, the Nissan Altima and the Chevrolet Impala.
Finding the Impala among the leaders brings back memories. A generation ago, the Impala was so far ahead of the pack that there really was no second place.