Led by double-digit sales increases at Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Hyundai-Kia, Toyota Motor Corp. and Subaru, the U.S. auto industry closed out a stellar 2014 with a blockbuster December as U.S. consumers took advantage of year-end deals, lower fuel prices and an improving economy.
Light-vehicle sales rose 11 percent in December -- slightly above forecasts -- and 6 percent to 16.53 million for the year. The annualized pace of sales hit 16.92 million units, the third-fastest sales rate of the year.
It is the fifth consecutive year U.S. deliveries have increased after hitting a 27-year low of 10.4 million in 2009 during the Great Recession.
Thirteen brands -- Honda, Nissan, Subaru, Porsche, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Land Rover, Hyundai, BMW, Audi, Jeep and Ram -- established U.S. sales records in 2014.
“Everything you need to have a great month was in place,” said Kurt McNeil, head of U.S. sales operations for GM. “Consumers felt good about the direction of the economy, interest rates and fuel prices were low, and our dealers did a great job introducing customers to our ... new and redesigned vehicles.”
Among major automakers, Daimler AG, FCA, Nissan Motor and Toyota gained U.S. market share in 2014 while the BMW Group, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai-Kia and Volkswagen Group lost ground. Subaru and Mazda also captured additional share.
BMW retakes luxury title
The BMW brand reclaimed the luxury-sales crown from Mercedes-Benz in 2014 by a 9,347-vehicle margin: 339,738 vs. 330,391. No. 3 Lexus, which was the luxury leader from 2000 to 2010, is quickly closing the gap on its top two rivals, passing 300,000 in annual sales for the first time since 2007.
Meanwhile, Audi (182,011) outsold Cadillac (170,750) for the first time, jumping to the No. 4 luxury brand.
Sales at FCA, formerly the Chrysler Group, rose 20 percent in December, capping a year that saw overall volume advance 16 percent. The company posted the biggest gain in U.S. market share among major automakers on robust demand for Ram pickups and Jeeps.
Deliveries at GM, helped by heavy promotions, rose 19 percent, with retail volume increasing 23 percent and fleet shipments advancing 6 percent. Sales rose 21 percent at Chevrolet, 23 percent at GMC and 32 percent at Buick, while Cadillac dropped 11 percent.
For all of 2014, GM’s sales advanced 5 percent.
At Toyota, sales of Lexus, Toyota and Scion models totaled 215,057 last month, a 13 percent increase. The company’s 2014 volume advanced 6 percent. Toyota brand deliveries rose 13 percent and Lexus volume hit a December record of 39,879, up 15 percent.
The Camry, with sales of 428,606, ranked as the top-selling car in the U.S. for the 13th straight year.
“The industry finished last year on a high note thanks to a strong economic tailwind,” said Bill Fay, general manager of the Toyota division. “That momentum should continue in 2015 and combined with continued strong replacement demand, boost sales further.”
Still, some executives and analysts caution that growth will slow in 2015 after five years of rapid recovery.
"U.S. auto sales are dancing to a very different, and we believe unsustainable, beat," Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas warned in a report Monday.
Jonas suggested demand for new light vehicles has outpaced U.S. economic, wage and housing growth rates, thanks largely to easy credit access and extended loan terms that are keeping monthly payments manageable for many consumers.
Toyota executives said they conservatively expect 2015 sales of 16.7 million vehicles, while others, including LMC Automotive, expect deliveries to hit 17 million.
"Any way you slice it, whether it's 16.7 [million vehicles] or slightly below or above, it's still a very healthy industry," Jeff Bracken, head of Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus brand in the U.S., said of the coming year.