January car sales set 2012 off to an unexpectedly fast start. Sales totaled 912,921 vehicles, 11 percent more than the 698,769 vehicles sold in January a year ago. That put the Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate (SAAR) of sales at 14.1 million vehicles, the highest SAAR since August 2009's Cash for Clunkers month and well ahead of last January's 10.8 million SAAR.
Some of January's performance came from high fleet sales, particularly from Detroit automakers. General Motors said 30 percent of its sales came from fleets; Ford acknowledged 29 percent; and Chrysler reportedly was at 28 percent. January typically is a high fleet month, and the Detroit trio said their fleet rates would drop to more normal levels — lower levels than in pre-recession past — as the year progresses.
January saw softer sales of trucks but higher sales of small cars and small SUVs. Another notable trend was the softer luxury car market, not surprising since December was a strong month for luxury sales, accelerated by heavy promotions and a tight race between BMW and Mercedes-Benz for 2011 luxury car supremacy. BMW won that crown for 2011 but gave it up in January. "The Mercedes brand outsold the BMW brand by 24 percent in January," noted Edmunds.com Senior Analyst Jessica Caldwell. "Plus Mercedes is selling more 2012 model year vehicles — 95 percent to BMW's 74 percent. However, the game changer this year could be the 2012 BMW 3 Series that hits dealerships this month. The 3 Series inevitably will spark renewed interest in BMW."
Here's a rundown of the major automakers' January performance:
GM Off 6 Percent: A sales total of 167, 962 wasn't a rollicking start to the new year at General Motors Co., where the world's largest automaker paid the price for comparisons with last January, when by its own admission the company went overboard on incentives. That artificial — and in the end, costly — boost to January 2011 sales made GM's mediocre January pace this year look all the more tepid.
The company also markedly ratcheted-up fleet sales in January; without that, GM's overall sales volumes would have looked even worse than the 6 percent drop recorded for the month. Every GM brand posted a sales decline compared with last January, including a rocky 23.1-percent slide for Buick and a 29.1-percent decline for Cadillac as both brands desperately await all-new products coming throughout 2012. The Chevrolet division carried the month with a sales decline of just 1.2 percent. Leading the brand were nice gains for the Cruze compact car, which was up 10.4 percent to a solid 15,049 sales, a 25.3-percent gain for Suburban at 2,935 sales and sales for the extended-range hybrid-electric Volt shot up 87.9 percent to 603 sales in January, while sales for the Camaro sports car rose a healthy 19.9 percent to 5,709.
Ford Up 7 Percent: Ford Motor Co.'s sales increase of 7 percent compared with January 2011 demonstrated two facets of the new year's auto landscape: first, the days of enormous year-over-year sales gains could be over; the giant monthly sales leaps in comparison with recession years are done. Second, the market has nominally returned to "normal:" Ford's sales of 136,710 vehicles represented its best January performance since 2008 — the last January before the recession.
There was evidence of large fleet buys and increased incentive spending in Ford's January improvement, however, with the outsized 59.8-percent leap for the Focus compact car perhaps evidence a bit of both influences. Ford sold in excess of 5,000 more Focus' last month than it did in January, 2011 — although the company did claim last year that Focus supply was constrained. Other sales gainers in Ford's car business included an 18-percent hike for the Mustang and a 19-percent improvement for the Taurus. These were balanced by an 18-percent slide for the Fiesta subcompact (could Fiesta have been impacted by those Focus incentives?) and a rare decline for the Fusion, it's 5.1-percent drop perhaps being attributable to the world getting an early-January look at the gorgeous next-gen Fusion.
Sales for Ford's utility vehicles were a mixed bag in January. There was a tasty 35.6-percent increase for the high-volume Explorer to 9,966 units and the soon-to-be-replaced Escape moved an outlandish 17,259 copies. But the plump Flex and Edge both lagged and the Expedition dropped 10 percent. The Lincoln premium brand extended its downward spiral into 2012, falling 7.9 percent in January to just 5,121 total sales. Most Lincoln nameplates posted sales gains compared with last January, but couldn't overcome dwindling sales for discontinued Town Car.
Toyota Sales up 8 percent: Toyota sold 125,540 vehicles in January, up 8 percent from a year ago, largely on the strength of the revamped 2012 Camry. Toyota division sold 112,266 vehicles, for a 9-percent increase, led by its cars and specifically by a 56-percent hike in Camry sales. The revamped Yaris also posted a gain, but at the expense of the Corolla. Prius sales climbed. Avalon sales were up 79 percent. RAV4 sales were down, undoubtedly hurt by strong sales of the new Honda CR-V and highly incentivized Ford Escape, as it winds down to make way for the new version this spring.
Lexus sales of 12,274 units were down 5 percent due to declines in its SUV sales. Lexus ES sales were up but sales of Lexus SUVs, particularly its bread-and-butter RX, were down. Scion sales edged 8 percent higher, thanks to the tC.
Chrysler Up 44 Percent: Chrysler Group sold 101,149 vehicles in the United States for a whopping 44-percent gain from a year ago and the group's best January sales since 2008.
Cars — specifically sedans — drove Chrysler's high sales. Gains came from the Chrysler 300 (up 237 percent), Chrysler 200, Dodge Charger and Dodge Avenger. As always, Jeep brand sales were a big help, kicking in a 37-percent hike with all five models gaining by double digits. Ram pickup sales also so a hefty 47-percent rise.
Honda Up 9 Percent: Although Honda has had its problems connecting with customers with its traditional ease, nobody expected sales from the natural-disaster ravaged 2011 would be Honda's "new normal," and the company demonstrated as much with an 8.8-percent sales increase in January to 83,009 units.
Honda got back to its former pace for the stalwart Civic compact car, banging out a 49.5-percent gain in January to a plump 21,883 sales, despite ongoing criticism of the all-new Civic's interior quality and so-so dynamics. And sales of 18,960 for the all-new 2012 CR-V compact crossover was a 16-percent gain and the best-ever month for the one of this burgeoning segment's benchmarks. "Honda's return to full strength on the manufacturing front is already beginning to pay dividends on the sales floor," said John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president of sales, in a release. "On top of kicking off 2012 with record January sales for the new CR-V, it's gratifying to see how many Civics we can sell when we actually have Civics to sell. It's great to see customers embrace this great vehicle now that our dealers have enough cars on their lots."
Honda's other mainstay, the Accord, will see a new-generation model launched this fall and still managed a 1.5-percent sales gain in January, to 13,659 sales, but sales for the Fit subcompact fell 11 percent and deliveries for Honda two hybrid models, the Insight and CR-Z coupe, were dismal at 492 and 363, respective declines of 68.3 and 59.4 percent. Apart from the CR-V, Honda's "truck" sales were mostly down in January, with the Pilot midsize crossover sliding 5 percent and even the popular Odyssey minivan off by 1.8 percent, although the Ridgeline pickup rocketed up 45.6 percent to 1,245 sales. At Honda's Acura upscale division, total sales were up 5.3 percent to 8,381. The TL midsize sedan nudged out the TSX entry-level sedan for the brand's car sales crown at 2,283 to 2,266. Acura's best-seller in January was the MDX midsize crossover, although its 8,621 sales nonetheless represented an 8.5-percent slide compared with January, 2011.
Nissan Sales Up 10 Percent: Nissan North American, including the Nissan and Infiniti brands, had January sales of 79,313 vehicles for a 10-percent increase. The Nissan brand saw sales rise nearly 13 percent to 72,517 vehicles on the strength of: Versa, which had a record month; the Altima, which had a 36-percent gain as it starts to wind down for the arrival of its replacement later this year; Rogue, which had a record January; and, on the truck side, the Frontier, with a 35-percent increase and the Pathfinder with a 31-percent rise.
Luxury Infiniti sales dropped 8 percent to 6,796 vehicles. The QX had a gain of 30 percent, though its sales are small at 1,020 in the month.
Other highlights include: a 15-percent gain by Hyundai with sales up across its line; a 28-increase by Kia, driven by the Optima and Soul; a 48-percent increase in Volkswagen sales, for its best January since 1974, on the strength of the new U.S.-built Passat and Tiguan; and a 21-percent increase for Subaru, which set a new January record for sales.
Edmund.com's Bill Visnic contributed to this report.