Signs of Recovery in 2009 Auto Sales Results

Last Updated Jan 6, 2010 12:38 PM EST

Automakers are reporting their 2009 results, and as Charles Dickens pointed out, it's the best of times and the worst of times--all at once. Some carmakers did spectacularly well, but others are still stuck in the doldrums.

· Toyota continues as the bestselling auto brand in terms of retail sales, having displaced General Motors (which held the position for 80 years) in 2008. (GM sold more cars, but had a higher percentage of fleet sales.) Toyota sold 187,860 cars in December, up 22.9 percent from the same period last year. For the year, Toyota Motor Sales reported 1.77 million cars sold--down 20.2 percent from 2008. In its press release announcing its results, Toyota downplayed its role at #1, though it does refer to Toyota "continuing as the bestselling overall brand." "It's not the Toyota M.O. to openly brag about something of this nature," said Toyota PR maven Curt McAllister.

· Ford had its best month since May of 2008-with sales zooming 33 percent from a year ago. But it's down for the year. The company, the only one of the Big Three not to go through bankruptcy, gained a full percentage point in U.S. market share, to 15 percent. Ford hasn't seen an annual share increase in 15 years. The company's stock is now worth almost 10 times what it was at the beginning of 2009. Of course, for the year Ford was down 15 percent but that's still much better than the dramatic slide of 2007-2008. By the way, Ford's hybrid sales were up 147 percent for the year, so green cars have been a big plus for the automaker. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is a hit.

· General Motors put on a good face about its approximately 20 percent market share. GM sold 160,996 cars in December, up seven percent from the same month last year and a 50 percent increase from November. For the year, GM sold 2,084,492, which is down 33 percent from 2008. But again, there was reason for optimism, since the sales totals reflected far fewer fleet sales. "Our goal is to build market share with great products and marketing, rather than with inflated fleet sales," said Susan Docherty, GM's sales chief, in a conference call. In the year that the company wound up Pontiac (796 left on dealer lots) and Saturn (916 left), it did well concentrating on the core brands of Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC.

· Chrysler is still struggling, in a distant third place among domestics. Its sales for the year went below a million, which hadn't happened for almost 40 years. Sales were down four percent in December (still falling) and 36 percent for the year. It will be a miracle if Fiat, which plans to bring in some slick new cars, including the popular-in-Europe 500, can put Walter Chrysler's venerable institution back on its feet. Or its wheels.

· The big winner for 2009, albeit on modest volumes, is Subaru, which sold 216,652 cars in 2009, up 15 percent from the 187,699 sold in 2008. The carmaker actually set a sales record, topping its previous best year (200,703) in 2006. Kudos go to the Forester, which was up 28 percent in sales to 77,781.

Other foreign carmakers reporting sales increases in December include Kia (up 44 percent), Hyundai (up 41 percent), Nissan (up 18 percent) and Volkswagen (up 16 percent.

AutoTrader.com's president Chip Perry says December may be remembered as the auto industry's turnaround month. We'll see about that.