General Motors (NYSE:GM) said this morning that its U.S. sales rose 5% in the fourth quarter from a year ago, as it sold over 770,000 vehicles thanks to its best retail result in over a decade.

The result didn't entirely offset the sales that GM lost while its factories were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier in 2020. But it did help: While GM ended the year with its total U.S. sales down 12% from 2019, that was due in part to lost commercial-fleet deliveries; its retail deliveries were down just 6% from the year prior. 

Of interest to auto investors, GM's sales gains were led by some of its most profitable products, a good sign for the fourth-quarter earnings report, expected on Feb. 10.

A black 2021 Cadillac Escalade, a large luxury SUV.

Fourth-quarter sales of GM's brand-new Cadillac Escalade rose 6% from its predecessor's result a year ago. Image source: General Motors.

  • GM sold almost 840,000 full-size pickup trucks in 2020. That was enough, it said, to make it the U.S. market sales leader in the category. Combined sales of all versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra were up 11.1% in the fourth quarter from the same period in 2019, and up 4.9% for the full year.
  • Sales of the all-new Cadillac Escalade SUV, one of GM's most expensive vehicles (and likely one of its most profitable), rose 6.4% from a year ago to about 9,500 units. Buyers weren't shy about adding options: GM said that 43% of those Escalades were sold at prices above $100,000. 
  • Sales of the Escalade's siblings, the big Chevrolet Tahoe, Chevrolet Suburban, and GMC Yukon, were up a combined 28% from the fourth quarter of 2019. These are also all-new models that, like GM's full-size pickups and the Escalade, were designed and developed with profitability in mind. 
  • Overall U.S. retail sales rose 12% in the fourth quarter. Generally speaking, while both are solidly profitable, retail sales deliver more profit per vehicle sold than commercial-fleet sales. 

One note regarding GM's claim to pickup-truck sales leadership: Archrival Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) hadn't yet reported its sales results at press time. Based on analyst estimates, it's likely that Ford's F-Series trucks outsold the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra individually, but that GM's total (with the Silverado and Sierra added together) exceeded Ford's, allowing both companies to claim a sales victory. 

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