An early trend: Last year's three big sales winners -- Chrysler Group, Hyundai-Kia and Volkswagen of America -- continued to drive the market in January.
An early subplot: American Honda and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. have begun their long-awaited sales recoveries after a tough 2011. How much lost market share will they win back, and where will it come from?
A surprisingly strong January -- up 11 percent from January 2011 and the best January since 2008 -- seemed to preview that battle, in an optimistic setting. The 913,284 light-vehicle sales translated to a seasonally adjusted rate of 14.2 million, matching the cash-for-clunkers frenzy of August 2009 and well above December's 13.6 million pace.
The January SAAR "is 1 million over the early-month expectations," said Adam Jonas, top auto analyst at Morgan Stanley. "Our 14 million sales forecast is officially under review for positive revision."
"It's significant to see 900,000 in January when much of the country typically is in a deep freeze," said Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter. "We're bullish with where the industry is going."
Chrysler Group sales surged 44 percent, VW group was up 40 percent and Hyundai-Kia rose 20 percent. And all three were going up against strong January 2011 figures.
But after losing volume last year because of product shortages caused by natural disasters, Toyota group sales rose 8 percent in January, and American Honda climbed 9 percent. And those comparisons were against a relatively normal January 2011, before the Japan earthquake.
Before January, American Honda's sales declined in every month since May. Toyota sales were down or flat in seven of the previous eight months.
Inventory levels still aren't back to normal for either company. But Toyota Motor Sales' market share in January was 0.7 points higher than the 12.9 percent share it achieved for the 2011 calendar year. American Honda was up 0.1 point from its 9.0 percent in 2011.
In 2011, the two Japanese groups lost a combined 3.9 share points. Meanwhile, Chrysler picked up 1.3 points, Hyundai-Kia added 1.1, General Motors gained 0.5 and VW picked up 0.4.