Automakers reported a mixed bag of sales for the last quarter of 2020, with General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. posting strong results thanks to pent-up retail demand for their cars and trucks.
Manufacturers likely sold about 15.9 million new vehicles on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis in December, down 4.7% from a year ago, according to an average of five market-researcher forecasts. Strong retail sales in the third and fourth quarters probably bolstered the results despite an uncertain economic outlook, lower fleet sales and the lingering pandemic.
GM reported stronger-than-expected fourth-quarter U.S. sales gains on Tuesday, Toyota was right on the money and Hyundai Motor Co. came in below analysts’ consensus forecast but still had a respectable quarter. Nissan Motor Co. managed to beat estimates for the latest quarter but had its worst year in more than a decade. Other companies set to post results later today include Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Honda Motor Co.
The overall resilience of the U.S. market — which saw annualized sales plunge to more than 40-year lows in April as automakers temporarily closed factories and showrooms — has buoyed profits and kept dealer inventories tight.
Automakers are poised to ride their momentum from late 2020 into the new year, which may show continued improvement in demand for cars and trucks.
“We look forward to an inflection point for the U.S. economy in spring,” GM Chief Economist Elaine Buckberg said in a statement. “Widening vaccination rates and warmer weather should enable consumers and businesses to return to a more normal range of activities, lifting the job market, consumer sentiment and auto demand.”
Here are highlights (and lowlights) from the companies that are reporting results for December:
Nissan’s Lost Decade
Nissan’s woes continued as it posted an eighth straight quarterly decline, with sales dropping 19% in the last three months of 2020. Bucking an industry trend, the company’s worst performers included sport-utility vehicles such as its full-size Armada, mid-size Pathfinder and the small Frontier pickup.
For the year, Nissan’s deliveries sank 33% to 899,217 vehicles — the lowest since 2009, when sales totaled just 770,103 amid the Great Recession. The company is ailing from an aging lineup and managerial turmoil in North American and at its Yokohama headquarters.
December to Remember
Japan’s largest automaker — which owns almost half its home market — posted a 20% surge in U.S. sales from a year ago in December and a healthy 9.4% gain to 660,715 vehicles in the fourth quarter.
Toyota saw robust demand for its top-selling RAV4 compact SUV, Camry sedan and mid-size Highlander SUV. Gas-electric hybrid versions of all three helped propel deliveries. For the full year, sales fell 11% to 2.1 million vehicles — with hybrids accounting for almost 16% of the total.
Toyota expects that trend to continue. “As we look to 2021, we can see hybrids being 20%-25% of our business,” Bob Carter, Toyota’s executive vice president for North American sales, told reporters last month.
The Detroit automaker set the pace for its peers with a 4.8% increase in quarterly deliveries to 771,323 vehicles — its best fourth quarter for retail sales since 2007. Average transaction prices in the three-month period climbed to a record $41,886, a testament to GM’s embrace of bigger sport-utility vehicles such as the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Sierra pickups.
In all of 2020, GM limited the damage to a 12% decline to 2.5 million vehicles.
Hyundai Hums Along
The South Korean automaker came in below quarterly estimates but has been on a roll with slick SUVs including its full-size Palisade and compact Venue. It posted a 2% gain in December from a year ago and 2% drop for the fourth quarter to 178,844 vehicles. SUVs made up 70% of its retail sales last month.
For the year, Hyundai’s U.S. sales fell 10% to 622,269 vehicles, pulled lower by a plunge in fleet deliveries to commercial customers.
— By Chester Dawson, Keith Naughton and David Welch (Bloomberg)
— With assistance from Gabrielle Coppola (Bloomberg)