Last month was very good for car makers selling in the United States, at least in volume, writes Bill Cawthon.

Monthly sales were 14% ahead of December 2001 as manufacturers piled on the incentives. GM led with a 36.4% boost giving the company its first back-to-back market share gains since 1976 and even Ford had a good month as each of its domestic brands showed improvement.

There were changes: Chevrolet's Silverado pickup edged the Ford F-150 out of the top sales slot and the Ford Taurus was the best-selling passenger car for a month. The biggest surprise, however, was the Chevrolet Impala's rise to fourth place, ahead of the Honda Civic.

Chrysler, with the smallest gain of the Detroit car makers, got good performances from the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Ram pickup, which ended 2002 as the only major full-size pickup to post improved sales for the year.

Based on numbers from Ward's Auto, Americans confounded the dire predictions of industry analysts as they acquired more than 16.8 million light vehicles, making 2002 the fourth-highest volume year in history. Toyota, Honda, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover, Kia, Hyundai and Mitsubishi set records.

Detroit's car makers all saw declines from 2001, ranging from GM's minor 0.8% drop to Ford's 9.6% tumble. Chrysler was off just under 3% for the year.
Despite December's surprises, there was little change among the leaders. Ford's F-Series pickup celebrated its 21st consecutive year as America's bestseller, followed by the Silverado and Camry, which reclaimed the crown as top car.

One big change was Toyota bumping Chevrolet down to third place in passenger car sales. Toyota could become America's best-selling car brand in 2003, ending a century-old streak of Detroit dominance.

Light trucks again claimed the majority of sales, coming in slightly ahead of their 2001 record, while car sales dropped about 4%. In passenger cars, the imports increased their share of the market to better than 54%. Detroit lost ground even in trucks as imports took more of those sales.

SUVs accounted for nearly 25% of light vehicle sales in 2002. The Explorer celebrated its 12th year as sales leader, followed by the TrailBlazer and Grand Cherokee.

The Dodge Caravan continues to dominate the shrinking minivan market, but Chrysler's PT Cruiser is slumping due to the company's failure to refresh the line until recently.

Lexus held on to win in the luxury segment, followed by BMW and Mercedes. Toyota has a lot riding on the upcoming RX330: its predecessor has been the key to Lexus' success. Without the RX300, Lexus would drop to fourth, behind Cadillac.

Analysts are already saying 2003 will be a down year, citing many of the same factors that should have driven 2002 into the dumps. Compounding the problem is the fact GM, Ford and Chrysler need to show real profits if they want to avoid more trouble in the financial markets.

Cost cutting and incentives do little more than slow the bleeding. Detroit is going to have to produce vehicles good enough to take back sales from the competition.