Riding an industrywide upswing, General Motors and Ford Motor Co. both posted strong sales increases in 2011, but it was Chrysler Group that charged to the front of the pack with a 26 percent gain in sales.
Closing the year with a December in which sales surged 37 percent over the year prior, the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker sold 1.37 million vehicles in 2011. That's up from 1.09 million in 2010 and 931,402 in 2009. Its sales gain was the largest of all full-line automakers. (All numbers are for new vehicles sold in the United States.)
The Dodge nameplate led the way for Chrysler, selling 451,040 vehicles in 2011, an 18 percent increase over 2010.
But it was Jeep that roared back the strongest, with a year-over-year sales gain of 44 percent. The brand famous for its off-road prowess and seven-slot grilles muscled up the Toledo-built Wrangler's powertrain, restyled the Compass, and rode a wave of accolades for the recently redesigned Grand Cherokee for total sales of 419,349 vehicles. Sales of every current model increased at least 30 percent on the year, pushing Jeep to its best year since 2007, when it sold more than 475,000 vehicles.
Sales of the Wrangler continued to be brisk. The 11,415 units sold in December represent a 39 percent increase over December, 2010, and the vehicle's seventh consecutive monthly sales record. With a total of 122,460 units, the Wrangler nearly again outsold Jeep's flagship Grand Cherokee. Sales of the Grand Cherokee were up 51 percent over 2010 to 127,744.
The Toledo-built Liberty also sold well, with sales up 35 percent to 66,684. Production of the Liberty, which had its last major redesign in 2008, is scheduled to end sometime in the middle of this year.
Together the Liberty and Wrangler sold 189,144 units and accounted for 45 percent of all Jeeps sold in the United States last year.
GM said its 2011 sales were up more than 13 percent to 2,503,797.
Ford said its 2011 sales were up 11 percent to 2,143,101 vehicles. Ford said it sold 584,917 F-Series pickups in 2011, making it the best-selling truck for a 35th consecutive year and the best-selling vehicle for 30 years in a row.
All three Detroit automakers said they gained market share -- at least in part because of natural disasters that hurt Asian automakers.
Nissan North America sold 944,073 Nissans for its best year ever in the United States. The company's Infinity luxury marquee added more than 98,000 vehicles for total sales of 1.04 million.
American buyers put themselves in the driver's seat of about 12.7 million new cars in 2011, a 10 percent increase over 2010 and a 22 percent jump from the doldrums of 2009, which was the worst year in decades for carmakers.
Late last month, Edmunds.com economists predicted the sales surge would continue into 2012, estimating U.S. vehicle sales of 13.6 million. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that some experts believe sales could go as high as 13.8 million this year.
According to experts, easier credit, an improved economy, and people wanting to replace aging vehicles spurred more buyers to take the plunge in 2011.
"Over the course of the fourth quarter of 2011, clear signs emerged that U.S. consumers are more confident and that other underpinnings of our economy are either stable or slowly improving," said Don Johnson, GM's U.S. sales chief.
In addition to the Wrangler, Chrysler's December gains were attributed to the new midsize Chrysler 200, the full-size Dodge Charger, and the redesigned flagship Chrysler 300.
GM was up 5 percent for the month, aided by the Chevrolet Cruze compact and pickup sales. Ford sales rose 10 percent, led by the new Explorer SUV. Nissan sales rose nearly 8 percent for December.
Chrysler Group LLC's strong showing for December capped a remarkable turnaround under its new Italian ownership. It jumped ahead of Honda as the No. 4 U.S. automaker in 2011.
Chrysler and GM nearly ran out of cash in 2009 and needed government help and a trip through bankruptcy protection to survive.
Chrysler, now majority-owned by Fiat SpA, has introduced 16 new or revamped models in the past two years, vehicles that have fueled its recovery.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler and Fiat SpA, is predicting a net profit for 2011 of $600 million.
"Over the past 12 months, we successfully changed the conversation from Chrysler's survival to products and service that consumers expect and want from a great American automaker," Mr. Marchionne said in an email to employees.
Issues related to the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan lingered for months, hurting sales for both Toyota and Honda. The Japanese automakers each reported drops of about 7 percent. Honda sold 1.1 million vehicles. Toyota sold 1.6 million.
Toyota's sales bounced back some in December, though Honda posted a drop of 19.3 percent last month.
"As we eagerly close one of the most challenging years American Honda has weathered, we are well-positioned for a strong 2012," John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president of sales, said in a written statement. "Although we still had low inventory in December, our production levels are now back to normal."
Hyundai Motor America continues to emerge as a top-tier player, selling 645,691 vehicles last year -- good for a 20 percent gain over last year. Adding its Kia brand into the mix, companywide sales increased nearly 27 percent.
Information from The Blade's news services was included in this report.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.
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