Auto industry sets all-time sales record in 2015

Michael Wayland, and Melissa Burden

The U.S. auto industry sold more cars and trucks in 2015 than ever before, with Detroit automakers reporting their best sales since the mid-2000s and several foreign manufacturers posting all-time records.

Led by sales of pickups, sport utility vehicles and crossovers, automakers sold 17.47 million vehicles last year — besting the previous record of 17.41 million set in 2000 and posting a 5.7 percent gain from 2014, according to Autodata Corp. The record was closer than many analysts expected, as December sales came in slightly less than many projected.

“Low gas prices certainly helped put money in people’s pockets, which goes along with the overall feeling good about the economy, and led to all the SUV and truck purchases this year,” said Jessica Caldwell, director of industry analysis for “It was really the year of the SUV.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Ford Motor Co. reported their best annual U.S. sales since 2005 and 2006, respectively, while General Motors Co. had its best year since 2007. Other automakers — Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co., Kia Motors Corp., BMW Group and Subaru — recorded all-time records. Industry observers expect the 2015 record to be eclipsed this year.

GM was the U.S. industry’s sales leader last year, selling nearly 3.1 million vehicles, up 5 percent. Ford sold 2.6 million, up 5.3 percent. Fiat Chrysler sold more than 2.2 million, up 7.3 percent from 2014.

Topping the sales charts in 2015 was Ford’s F-Series with 780,354 sold. That made it America’s best-selling pickup for 39 consecutive years and the best-selling vehicle for 34 straight years. The Ford brand remained the best-selling brand in the United States for a sixth-straight year, with more than 2.5 million cars and trucks sold.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s midsize Camry sedan was the best-selling car for a 14th consecutive year, with sales at 429,355, level with 2014.

“2015 was a standout year,” Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota Division, told reporters in a call Tuesday. Toyota sold nearly 2.5 million vehicles last year, up 5.3 percent.

There was little market share shift in 2015. GM led with 17.6 percent (down 0.2 percent), followed by Ford (14.9 percent), Toyota (14.3 percent) and Fiat Chrysler (12.8 percent) keeping their top spots from 2014. No automaker gained or lost more than 0.2 percentage points of market share from 2014 to 2015.

Sales last month set a December record at 1.64 million, up 9 percent year-over-year, as buyers took advantage of five selling weekends and two additional sales days vs. December 2014. Some analysts expected December to top 1.7 million and come close to the industry monthly record of more than 1.8

million set in July 2005.

Trucks, SUVs continue surge

2015 marked the fifth time in six years that light-duty trucks, including some SUVs and crossovers, outsold cars. Trucks accounted for 55.7 percent, or 9.7 million, of vehicles sold last year, up more than 1.1 million from 2014. That’s the segment’s highest percentage since 2004, according to Autodata Corp. The shift in consumer preferences amid low gas prices hurt car sales; their numbers declined by more than 177,000 from the year before.

“Low interest rates and low gas prices provided Christmas presents to most carmakers, as the 2015 sales year ended with a bang,” said Jack R. Nerad, Kelley Blue Book executive editorial director and executive market analyst.

KBB reports that even though pickups from Detroit automakers were the three best-selling vehicles in 2015, small SUVs now lead the overall industry in market share.

National Automobile Dealers Association chief economist Steven Szakaly expects automakers to increase buyer incentives on cars this year by at least 10 percent, as demand for pickups, crossovers and SUVs continues to rise. He expects sales of trucks to increase to 57 percent of the industry this year.

More good news for 2016

Many industry analysts expect 2016 new-vehicle sales to top 2015, which would make for a second-consecutive year of record sales and a seventh-consecutive year of annual increases.

Expectations from industry analysts range between 17.5 million and 18 million or more, as favorable factors such as low fuel prices, a rebounding labor market and consumer confidence continue.

“In terms of the macroeconomic environment, we expect that many of the favorable factors that supported a record 2015 industry performance will remain in place this year,” said Ford chief economist Emily Kolinski Morris, who declined to release Ford’s 2016 sales outlook Tuesday.

GM, which also did not release its 2016 forecast, said it is expecting a second-consecutive year of record industry sales in 2016.

“The single most important pieces are the ongoing gains in employment and the growth in personal income,” Mustafa Mohatarem, GM’s chief economist, said in a statement. “When you add in lower energy prices, it’s easy to see why consumer spending is strong.”

Szakaly, whose Virginia-based NADA represents about 16,000 new-car and truck dealerships, expects sales to rise to 17.7 million or higher in 2016 before leveling off.

“Long-term sustainably of this market at or above 18 million is questionable,” he said. “It’s still going to be a great year in 2016, but there’s always this worry between profitability and sales at the (automaker) level.”

Chasing sales and market share over profits is one reason why GM and the former Chrysler went bankrupt amid the recession in 2009. They were producing more vehicles than the market needed, and had to offer big discounts and buying incentives to move them.

Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said it’s “hard to say” if more marketing and incentives will be needed in 2016. He expects automakers to remain competitive, but believes they have learned from past mistakes.

“(The) industry’s been pretty disciplined,” he said during a call Tuesday with news media and analysts. “I anticipate that it will continue to be disciplined. I think everybody learned their lessons the earlier part of the last decade. We try to catch supply to demand.”

Factors that could prevent 2016 from being another record year include global geopolitical issues, natural disasters and an influx of recently leased vehicles entering the market, possibly stealing some new-car sales.

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