December brought little holiday cheer for American carmakers, writes Bill Cawthon. As import brands claimed a record share of the US light vehicle market and celebrated generally strong sales, only Chrysler was able to muster an improvement over last December's strong showing.

Even with renewed incentives, GM's sales were down 9.2%, dashing hopes for a third consecutive market share increase. Ford came up short as well, 8.2% off its December 2002 pace.

Though not all manufacturers have yet reported December sales figures, Ward's Auto estimates Americans acquired fewer than 1.43 million light vehicles in December. If that's correct, sales for 2003 would total just over 16.6 million units, a 1.1% drop from last year and the weakest performance since 1998.

While Ford has proclaimed 2004 "The Year of the Car," 2003 was all about trucks and cars pretending to be trucks. GM truck sales set a new industry record and the big American pickups captured the top three sales spots. While the missing sales reports preclude a precise figure, it's safe to say pickups and SUVs cut themselves a bigger piece of the pie. It's also safe to say the import brands' share of that piece also grew, and will continue to grow.

Nissan's new Titan made its debut with a modest 2,072 sales and the big Pathfinder Armada luxury SUV spin-off has posted 6,609 sales in its first months on the market.

An interesting trend is the sales growth among luxury cars. Led by Lexus, which claimed the blue ribbon for the fourth consecutive year, 11 of the 13 major luxury marques beat their 2002 sales results. Eight brands established new all-time records. This mirrors the broader-based trend seen in the US retail market, where upscale stores reported improved results while mid-market and discount stores posted generally disappointing results.

Ford added a 17th year to its record as America's favourite brand and the F-series pickup, recently named "North American Truck of the Year," easily cruised to its 22nd year as the best-selling vehicle and 27th year as the most popular truck.

One of the most improved among the market leaders is the Dodge Ram pickup, which leapfrogged over the Camry, Accord and Explorer to claim third place. Another big mover was the Chevrolet Impala, now positioned to replace the Taurus as the best-selling American car.

Other than shifts in the rankings, there wasn't much change at the top. The same models on Ward's top 10 cars and trucks in 2002 were back in 2003. The Camry captured the top spot among passenger cars, its fourth win in the last five years. Even with a 14% drop in sales, the Explorer remains the favourite SUV, over 100,000 sales ahead of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer.

Carmakers and some industry analysts are looking for a better year in 2004, citing the growth in the US economy. What is more questionable is increased profitability. A number of factors may limit vehicle manufacturers' ability to cut incentives unless they are willing to trade volume, something the Detroit car companies may find difficult to do.

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