The U.S. auto industry was a winner with 2011 car sales hitting their highest level since 2008. While still off the blistering pace of a few years ago when sales were above 15 million vehicles a year, 2011 sales of 12,776,877 vehicles were up 10.8 percent from 2010, the third consecutive year of gains.
The year opened with cautious optimism, but the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, combined with a sputtering U.S. economy, threatened those hopes. Nevertheless, the year closed on a high note with December sales of 1,242,946 vehicles, an increase of 8.5 percent from the year before. That put the Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate (SAAR) of sales at 13.5 million vehicles for an eight-month high. Detroit automakers were winners grabbing a 46.9-percent market share, up from 45.1 percent in 2010. Each of the three posted 2010-to-2011 sales increases above the industry average. Chrysler reported the heftiest gain of any major automaker with sales up 26 percent over 2010. General Motors' sales rose 13 percent; Ford's climbed 11 percent.
Other automakers posting significant gains were: Volkswagen, up 26 percent for its best year in the United States since 1972; Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia had record years with sales up 30 percent and 36 percent, respectively; Nissan, which recovered from the earthquake faster than did Toyota and Honda, set a new U.S. record with sales up 15 percent. Toyota and Honda saw sales slip by 7 percent from 2010. Despite also being hurt by the earthquake, Subaru still set a record — its fourth consecutive one.
Here are other highlights of 2011 winners:
BMW: BMW is the new luxury-car sales champ, edging out Mercedes-Benz and unseating Lexus, which held the top spot for 11 straight years.
Ford F-150: The Ford F-150 was the No. 1 selling vehicle in America in 2011. The F-150 has been America's best-selling vehicle for 30 years running and America's best-selling truck for 35 years. Ford said 40 percent of F-150 sales were for the fuel-saving EcoBoost engine. The F-150 soundly surpassed combined sales of GM's full-size pickup trucks, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, both of which get a massive makeover in 2012.
Toyota Camry: Despite the battering Toyota took from the Japan earthquake and tsunami in terms of disrupted production and subsequent lower sales, the Toyota Camry still came out on top as the best-selling car in America in 2011. It has held that position since 1983. While Camry continued to lead the midsize car segment in sales, the Honda Accord, which also saw production and sales dampened by the earthquake's aftermath, fell from second to third place, surpassed by the Nissan Altima as well as the Ford Fusion, which had a record year. Other jostling in the segment had the Hyundai Sonata move ahead of the Chevrolet Malibu. The midsize car segment will be the one to watch in 2012 as almost all of the entries are relatively new or brand new. The Malibu, Fusion and Accord are vastly revamped for 2012; the freshened Camry was re-done in late 2011.
Toyota Corolla: Ditto. Production of the Toyota Corolla after the earthquake also was a struggle, but it still took its No. 1 spot as best-selling compact car in America. This was another category that saw some movement, with the Honda Civic, usually in the No. 2 spot, beat by the spoiler Chevrolet Cruze, a new contender. The Civic got clobbered not only by production issues but by lukewarm reviews from critics for the latest version. Nevertheless, Civic sales are bouncing back. The snazzy new Hyundai Elantra grabbed the fourth position followed by the Volkswagen Jetta, ironically another vehicle maligned by the critics but selling well. The Ford Focus, with its new version introduced last spring, fell to No. 6. Nissan Sentra rounded out the bestsellers in the category.
Ford Fiesta: The Ford Fiesta, launched in 2010, soared to the head of the subcompact class in 2011, supplanting the Honda Fit as the previous segment leader and moving the rest of the pack down a notch.
Chevrolet Equinox: It's not even that new but GM just can't build enough of the popular Chevrolet Equinox. The midsize SUV and its sibling, the GMC Terrain, sold off dealership lots faster than almost anything else out there during 2011. As a result, GM announced it would re-open its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant to produce even more Equinox models and make room at its Canadian plan to make more Terrains. The Ford Explorer roared into the No. 2 spot, just ahead of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander got pushed down, partly due to damage caused by the Japan earthquake.
Ford Escape: In its last year in its current form, the Ford Escape overtook last year's leader in the compact sport-utility vehicle segment, Honda CR-V. The Escape will be replaced in mid 2012 with a new, more stylish model; a redesigned CR-V hit the market in December. With the two top compact SUVs dressed in new garb for 2012, the race should get even more interesting in this growing segment. The rest of the usual suspects rounded out the best sellers in the category with the Nissan Rogue overtaking the Kia Sorento. The Subaru Forester held its spot in sixth place. Toyota RAV4
Toyota Sienna: The Toyota Sienna squeezed out a few more sales than did the Dodge Caravan to steal the title of America's best-selling minivan. Of course, add in the Chrysler Town & Country and the two Chrysler minivans sell the most.
Kia Soul: The Kia Soul, aided by clever advertising featuring hip music and dancing hamsters, surpassed the 100,000-sales mark for the first time. The Soul gained sales while the rest of the box car pack went backwards. The Honda Element has been discontinued; the Nissan Cube might as well be. The runner-up in the category, the Scion xB, racked up less than a fifth of the Soul's total.
Nissan Leaf: The closely-watched race between the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the extended-range Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid after their first year on the market came down to the Leaf winning. In 2012, the numbers should grow and more entries will join the fray.