Automakers in the US are celebrating a new record year. With December's solid 1.6m total, industry-wide sales came in over 68,000 units ahead of the previous benchmark set in 2000.
The 17.4m total was a bit shy of analyst forecasts, however. In addition, the seasonally adjusted annualised rate (SAAR) came in at 17.34m, the first time since September the SAAR has been below 18m.
A positive sign, however, was the fact the new vehicle purchasing rate rose to 5,413 new vehicles per 100,000 population. That's the highest rate since 2006 and it does provide a ray of sunshine as the overall pace of industry growth continues to slow.
The Detroit automakers were all in the black in December, led by FCA, which got there in a Jeep which continued as the hot brand in the hottest segment with nearly a million sales in the NAFTA (USA, Canada, Mexico) region. Worldwide Jeep sales came in at better than 1.2m for the year.
Ford repeated as the top brand and the F-Series pickup is now closing on four decades as the best selling vehicle in the US. The Chevrolet Silverado and Ram pickups completed the trifecta as light trucks swept to a commanding 62% of the total market. The Toyota Camry and Corolla were the top passenger cars for the year.
Lexus sales hit an all-time record in December as Toyota's premium brand blew past Mercedes and BMW. It wasn't quite enough to allow Lexus to capture the luxury crown that it held for so many years: that remains firmly in the hand of BMW which overcame a December slump in Mini sales to set a new annual record for the group and the BMW brand.
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Several automakers reported record months and record years. American Honda set a record for sales last year as did Hyundai, Kia, Land Rover and Audi. Subaru delivered another record sales performance right on schedule.
Crossovers and SUVs were the hot segments this year. In December, total sales in the segment finally overtook passenger cars with a 39.6% piece of the pie compared to 38% for cars.
With the transition of the light commercial vehicle market from the traditional American-style box to European-style vans, the pace has picked up nicely. Sales of commercial vans rose 18.6% in 2015, the biggest gain of any major market segment. Since these are sold almost exclusively to businesses, it's an encouraging sign of confidence in the economy.
It will be important to keep an eye on sales of full-size pickups. Even though they remain the bestsellers, growth in the segment has fallen to where it's just slightly ahead of the industry. These trucks, which now routinely sell for over US$30,000, are significant profit generators, especially fir Ford, which got 30% of its total 2015 sales from the F-series.
While 2015 was a very good year, the industry may be reaching the capacity of the market. It took increased incentives and long-term financing to move the metal in 2015. Pent-up demand from the recession has long since been satisfied and there are some economic hurdles that will have to be cleared before the market can get much larger. One of these is stagnant wages, although there are signs that employers are gradually opening their wallets a bit wider. This is one of the reasons that the predicted growth in consumer spending due to low oil prices hasn't met expectations: consumers need to feel more confident in their ability to spend.
In addition, 2016 is an election year in the US so predictions are a bit iffy. The campaigns are already providing a circus that might have an impact on consumers and it's anybody's guess as to how they will respond.
Members' Report: U.S. light vehicle sales
* indicates a sales record.
**Volkswagen Group figures include Audi, Bentley, Porsche and Volkswagen brands
Other includes estimated sales for Aston-Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus, Rolls-Royce and Tesla
Source: Manufacturer's reported sales