Ford Motor Company (F 4.16%) said that it sold more vehicles in the U.S. than any other automaker in the fourth quarter, as ongoing supply chain disruptions continued to shake up the automotive pecking order around the world.

In a related shake-up, Toyota Motor (TM 1.90%) topped the full-year U.S. auto-sales ranking for the first time. 

What Ford said about its December and fourth-quarter U.S. sales

  • Ford sold 508,451 vehicles in Q4, a gain of 26.8% from the third quarter of 2021, a sign that the Blue Oval's relatively strong supply chain situation is continuing. The overall industry's sales were down about 3% sequentially, Ford said.
  • Ford's push to encourage retail customers to special-order their vehicles is working. Ford took about 70,000 new retail orders in December, up from about 12,000 vehicles in December of 2020. The push has helped Ford retain customers who might not have been able to find a suitable vehicle on their local dealers' lots, with inventories still thin amid a global shortage of automotive semiconductors.
  • Speaking of inventories, Ford ended the year with about 247,000 vehicles in stock in the U.S. -- up 22,000 from November and, according to Ford, the highest inventory in the industry.

Ford also noted that 2021 was its best year ever for electric-vehicle sales, cheekily mentioning that it was second only to Tesla in EV deliveries in the United States. 

(Relax, Tesla fans. Ford's cheeky mention is probably best understood as a dig at its ancient rival, General Motors (GM 2.25%). GM has rightly talked up its massive investments in EVs, but it didn't deliver as many as Ford in the U.S. in 2021 after a massive battery recall led it to idle production of the Chevrolet Bolt in August.)

An orange 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E, an electric high-performance crossover SUV.

Big demand for Ford's Mustang Mach-E -- and a string of battery fires that led to a Chevy Bolt recall -- helped Ford beat GM in U.S. EV sales last year. But it's still a long way behind Tesla. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

How Ford's U.S. sales results stack up against its top six rivals

2021 was a challenging year for just about every global automaker, as shortages of key components -- notably automotive-grade semiconductors -- limited production and led to shortages of new vehicles on dealer lots. But the timing of the shortages varied from automaker to automaker, as they depleted existing inventories and worked with their suppliers.

Ford was among the hardest-hit automakers in the first half of 2021. But its supply situation began to improve late in the summer, and by September it was able to deliver more vehicles in the U.S. than any of its rivals. That put it in first place for the fourth quarter. 

 Metric Q4 2021 Q4 2020 Change
Ford 504,138 538,643 (6.4%)
Toyota 474,379 660,715 (28.2%)
General Motors 436,358 767,444 (43.1%)
Stellantis 413,213 500,731 (17.5%)
Hyundai and Kia 313,638 341,698 (8.2%)
Honda Motor 287,206 366,068 (21.5%)
Nissan Motor 194,983 243,133 (19.8%)

Data source: The automakers, Automotive News. Corporate cousins Hyundai and Kia share a U.S. marketing organization and report their results together. 

How Toyota beat GM for the full-year crown

The situation was different for the full year. Here, we see that Toyota -- which had extensive stocks of chips when the year began -- was able to build out a big lead in the first half of 2021. While it too began to see production disruptions in the fall, it managed to end the year as the best-selling automaker in the U.S., displacing GM for the first time ever.

Metric 2021 2020 Change
Toyota 2,332,261 2,112,941 10.4%
General Motors 2,202,598 2,535,283 (13.1%)
Ford 1,891,753 2,034,708 (7%)
Stellantis 1,785,009 1,826,402 (2.3%)
Hyundai and Kia 1,489,118 1,224,758 21.6%
Honda 1,466,630 1,346,788 8.9%
Nissan 977,639 899,217 8.7%

Data source: The automakers, Automotive News.

What does it all mean?

It's worthy of note, but for auto investors taking a longer-term view, I don't think it means much.

Specifically, if you're a GM shareholder, I don't think the fact that GM was out-sold by Toyota in the U.S. last year is worth worrying about. I expect GM to return to its usual place atop the U.S. sales charts once the COVID-related supply chain woes ease later this year or in 2023. 

And what about Ford's fourth-quarter leadership? I think it's a nice feather in the company's cap, but I also don't think it means much beyond the increasingly obvious fact that Ford has a "hot hand" right now. The Blue Oval's suppliers are delivering well under the circumstances, and the company has seen a surge of interest thanks to a string of hit products including the Mustang Mach-E, the Bronco, and the much-anticipated upcoming F-150 Lightning electric pickup. 

But that said, I think all of the companies on our lists have faired fairly well amid the global disruptions caused by COVID-19. If you're looking for reasons to choose one over the other to hold long-term, I don't think the 2021 disruptions should be a major factor.