Is it possible that the U.S. economy really is improving after all?
It's certainly looking up. As predicted, November was a strong sales month for autos, with U.S. car and light-truck sales up almost 17% year over year. That was enough to lift the "SAAR" -- the adjusted annualized rate of vehicle sales, a widely watched indicator -- over the 12 million mark for the second month in a row.
That's still a far cry from the 16 million that was routine in the years before the economic crisis, but it's a welcome sign of strength for the recovering auto companies.
At least, for most of them.
A lot of winners, and one loser
Nearly all of the key players in the U.S. market save one (more on that in a minute) saw double-digit sales gains in November. As predicted, Ford (NYSE: F ) and Honda (NYSE: HMC ) posted gains more than 20%, Hyundai turned in an exceptional performance (a 45% gain), and Chrysler showed more signs of life with a 16% gain, thanks to (finally!) the arrival of some fresh products in showrooms.
And what of General Motors (NYSE: GM ) ? GM's results were better than expected, but how much better depends on your perspective. Looked at on a companywide level, GM trailed the industry average with an 11% gain. However, GM likes to cite its "core brand" results, comparing results for its four surviving U.S. brands to those brands' results a year ago. Those were quite solid -- up 21% on surging sales of the company's popular crossovers and SUVs, as well as nice gains for popular cars like the Cadillac CTS and a strong start for the new Chevy Cruze.
More happy days for Ford
There was certainly nothing wrong with Ford's results, as the Blue Oval turned in a balanced performance with increases across the board. Ford's PR people have given up on keeping track of the company's streak of monthly market-share increases, but they did note that the company is on track to gain market share for the second year in a row -- something it hasn't done since 1993.
More to the point, Ford is seeing continued strength in sales of key models. Sales of the midsize Fusion sedan were up 28% over solid year-ago numbers, the just-refreshed Edge crossover was up 55%, and the bread-and-butter F-150 pickup was up 26%.
Truck sales were up for most of the automakers -- Chrysler saw a whopping 86% boost for its mainstay Ram pickup -- with heavy-duty truck sales as a whole up 17% so far this year. That's an interesting trend with gas still around $3 a gallon, but it's a good sign of increasing economic confidence among households and small businesses.
The one that fell behind
As expected, Toyota (NYSE: TM ) was the one company that fell behind in a strong month. The battered Japanese giant's sales dropped 3.3%, led by a sizable 17% drop in sales of its cars.
Toyota executives blamed the drop on a shift in buyers' focus toward trucks and SUVs. I have two responses to that:
- That "shift" didn't hurt Toyota's key rivals. Honda, with a lineup that's at least as car-focused as Toyota's, was up 21%. Ford saw a 25% gain in cars alone.
- I think Toyota has some other problems that need attention.
Toyota is obviously still suffering a hangover from the recall debacles earlier this year, and I think it's also being hurt by a product lineup that's starting to look stale. While the company is doing a much better job of managing the PR around their ongoing recalls (including Tuesday's eye-opening worldwide recall of 650,000 Priuses to repair a coolant pump defect), Toyota's reputation for impeccable quality has taken a big hit. That reputation was a key selling point for the brand, and it isn't coming back anytime soon.
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