The highlight of the year in U.S. auto sales for me was the news that Chrysler is bringing back the Dodge Dart. I've been keeping that particular flame alive for decades, and still have my '63 convertible in the garage.
The Dart will be Fiat-based, which could be interesting. Chrysler will have to make it all-American, disguising its European origins. Note that the Italian-import 500 has been one of the losers of 2011. But Chrysler itself had a great year, with a 37 percent increase in December (its best result in four years), and sales of 1.37 million cars for the year. Chrysler and Fiat together hope to reach a six-million-vehicle sales goal by 2014, but that's a stretch.
The year finished up with sales of 12.8 million. That's not great compared to 2007, when more than 16 million were sold, but it's a pretty good recovery from the dark days of 2008 and 2009. Both GM and Ford are looking at better days in 2012, predicting 13.5 to 14.5 million cars and trucks will be sold.
American vehicles, including the Chevy Cruze, Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado, Ford Escape, Ford Fusion and Dodge Ram pickups were all in the Top 10 sales list compiled by Cars.com. The Japanese tsunami and the flooding in Thailand dealt a double blow to Japanese automakers. Both Toyota and Honda were big losers. Sales of the Accord were down 16 percent for the year, although the ever-popular model still managed to place at #9. The Camry was down 5.9 percent (though, at #3, it's still the best-selling car in America).
At presstime, BMW and Daimler still hadn't been heard from, so we don't know which one will replace Lexus as the top American luxury brand. Other winners included the Jeep division, up 41 percent, Kia (up 43 percent), Ford (up nine percent), GM (up 13 percent) and Volkswagen (up 36 percent). Both Honda and Toyota fell seven percent — largely because the cars weren't available.
By the time you read this, I'll be at the Detroit Auto Show taking in the two-day press spectacular. It will be a good opportunity to see if the automakers can sustain their growth, especially in the green area. An Automotive News survey found them pessimistic about hybrid and electric sales — 65 percent of them expect that EVs will be just six percent of the market as late as 2025.
The numbers will be that low only if oil prices stay even or drop, and I don't think that's going to happen. Anyone notice that the Iranians threatened to block the Straits of Hormuz, through which passes a fifth of the world's oil? A move like that would send a barrel of oil up $50 practically overnight. We'd be right back to $4 a gallon gasoline, and probably wore than that. Beyond political instability, oil demand is ramping up and supply isn't keeping pace.
Automakers didn't miss all that, so they also predict that investment in batteries and electric motors will stay strong. Frankly, they're hedging their bets.