DETROIT -- Kia, Chrysler and Volkswagen posted some of the strongest sales gains for December as the industry closed out 2011 on a high note.
December light vehicle sales volume rose 9 percent to 1.24 million units from a year earlier -- in line with analysts' forecasts. Total industry sales climbed 10 percent to 12.78 million for the year, up from 2010's total of 11.6 million and the 27-year low of 10.4 million in 2009.
December's seasonally adjusted annual sales rate reached 13.56 million -- the year's second highest mark behind November's 13.63 million, and up from a 12.53 million rate in December 2010.
"The year finished on a high note, with industry sales momentum strengthening as the year came to a close," Ken Czubay, head of U.S. marketing, sales and service for Ford Motor Co., said in a statement.
Among major automakers, Chrysler, GM, Nissan, and Hyundai-Kia gained market share last year, while Ford, Toyota and Honda lost ground.
BMW captured the U.S. luxury sales crown for the first time by edging out rival Mercedes by 2,715 units for the year. The BMW brand -- with strong sales of the redesigned 5 Series sedan and X3 crossover -- generated 2011 sales of 247,907, the German automaker said Thursday.
Mercedes said its December sales rose 28 percent to 25,701, for an annual total of 245,192. The results exclude Mercedes Sprinter vans and Smart cars as well as BMW's Mini brand, which aren't luxury vehicles.
Mercedes' U.S. deliveries rose 13 percent for the year, aided by a refreshed C-class sedan and redesigned M-class SUV.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus division had held the luxury sales crown since 2000 but has been hobbled by inventory shortages stemming from the March earthquake in Japan.
Chrysler Group's 37 percent jump for December capped a year that included 12 straight monthly increases, for an overall gain of 26 percent. Volkswagen Group was up 31 percent, its fourth straight month with gains of 29 percent or more following the opening of its U.S. assembly plant. Kia's 43 percent gain marked the fifth time this year that its monthly increases topped 40 percent.
Ford reported a 10 percent advance for the month and a 9 percent gain for the year.
General Motors Co. said its December sales climbed 5 percent to finish the year up 13 percent. Earlier in the day, GM and Chrysler said they expected the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate to hit 13.9 million to 14 million units for the month -- forecasts that turned out to be optimistic.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s sales were flat compared with a year earlier, with the Toyota Division up 2 percent and Lexus down 8 percent. For the year, Toyota's U.S sales dropped 7 percent to 1.64 million units, as the company battles back from the March earthquake in Japan.
Quake-related inventory shortages also continued to undermine Honda Motor Co.'s U.S. sales, which dropped 19 percent last month. It was the eighth straight monthly decline for the Japanese automaker. Combined Honda and Acura sales fell 7 percent in 2011.
Nissan Motor Co. said its Nissan and Infiniti sales rose 8 percent last month for its best December on record. The Nissan brand sold a record 944,073 cars and light trucks last year.
Hyundai posted December sales of 50,765, up 13 percent from a year ago. Record annual sales of the Sonata sedan and compact Elantra helped Hyundai set a yearly U.S. sales record of 645,691, up 20 percent from 2010.
Volkswagen brand sales increased 36 percent for the month and 26 percent for the year. The results reflect strong demand for the new Passat and Jetta sedans, VW said.
Chrysler has been aided by a revamped car and light truck lineup, generous discounts and healthy demand for traditional SUVs such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler and Dodge Durango.
SAAR tops 13M again
December marked the fourth consecutive month the SAAR topped 13 million units and provides more assurance that the industry's recovery is back on track after several bumps earlier in the year.
"Over the course of the fourth quarter of 2011, clear signs emerged that U.S. consumers are more confident and that other underpinnings of our economy are either stable or slowly improving," Don Johnson, head of U.S. sales operations for GM, said in a statement. "When we add improving economic fundamentals to pent-up demand and an aging vehicle fleet, it's now clear that auto sales should continue to grow in 2012, barring a shock to the system."
In 2012, U.S. sales are forecast to climb as high as 13.8 million, but well below the peak of 17.4 million in 2000.
Automakers used holiday promotions and heavy advertising to lure shoppers last month.
"Holiday timing -- both Christmas and New Year's Day hit on the weekend this year -- should benefit the sales rate," Wells Fargo analyst Richard M. Kwas said in a report last week. "Approximately half of December's unit sales will occur between Christmas and the New Year's holiday."
TrueCar.com, an online shopping site, estimates automakers spent an average of $2,562 on discounts and incentives per vehicle last month, down 3 percent from November and from December 2010.
Analysts say industry sales also benefited from higher inventory levels at Japanese automakers hampered for most of the late spring and summer by the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
"The Detroit 3 manufacturers held the key inventory advantage that made for strong light vehicle sales in December," said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association. "Higher incentives from manufacturers struggling to regain market share will drive stronger light vehicle sales as 2012 unfolds."
Taylor said Detroit automakers had nearly 50 percent of the inventory available for sale during December.
"The inventory advantage for North American manufacturers will provide sales momentum during the first quarter of 2012, as producers in Asia and Europe turn increasingly to sales in the growing U.S. light vehicle market and rebuild their inventory levels in the U.S. market," he said.
Ford said it expected the U.S. economy to expand 2 to 3 percent in 2012 and industry sales to be in the range of 13.5 million to 14.5 million units.
But economists expect consumer spending to remain volatile in 2012.
Income growth is expected to remain flat and job growth will be modest. More than 40 percent of the new jobs created over the last two years have been in low-paying fields such as retail, travel and hospitality.
The housing market also remains a drag on consumers' minds.
Industry sales have also been fueled by easing credit terms and pent-up demand. The average car or light truck on the road today is almost 11-years old and many households have reached the point where they must replace an aging minivan or crossover.
Demand for small cars, pickups and traditional SUVs outpaced the overall industry last year, while the minivan, large car and luxury car markets lost ground in 2011.