GM Sales Rise 5%, Ford Gains 2% as Auto Industry Closes Strong Year

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- The Detroit Three topped off 2012 with sales gains as Chrysler sales rose 10%, GM ( GM) sales rose 5% and Ford ( F) sales rose 2%.

On the Ford sales call, Ford analyst Erich Merkle said overall industry vehicle sales likely rose 10% to 12% during the month, while full-year light vehicle sales totaled about 14.5 million units. Small cars pulled back in December to 21% of the industry, but accounted for 22% of industry sales for the full year, up from 19% a year earlier.

Full-size pickups had their best month in December, accounting for 13% of industry sales. For the full year, pickup truck sales accounted for 11.5% of industry sales, relatively consistent with the previous two years.

Ford said its December sales total of 214,222 was its best December since 2006. "Ford finished 2012 strong, with retail sales showing improved strength as more customers returned to dealer showrooms," said Ken Czubay, Ford vice president, U.S. marketing, sales and service, in a prepared statement.

Fusion sales fell 11% to 19,283, enabling Focus to be the brand's best-selling car as sales rose 58% to 22,604. Fiesta sales rose 53% to 5,612. Escape sales fell 21% to 20,131. F Series sales rose 1% to 68,787. Lincoln sales lost 12%.

GM said its December sales were the best in five years, with 245,733 vehicles sold. GM said retail volume was up 38% from November, about double the industry's estimated increase, while "incentive spending was competitive with industry-wide levels, according to J.D. Power PIN estimates, and remains below many Asian and domestic competitors."

"All four GM brands increased their sales year over year in December and we were strong across the board in cars, crossovers and pickup trucks," said Kurt McNeil, vice president of U.S. sales operations, in a prepared statement. Additionally, in December, GM became the first U.S. automaker to sell more than 1 million vehicles in a single year that get an EPA-estimated 30 mpg or better on the highway.

Chevrolet sales rose 3.7% to 167,091, as Cruze sales rose 27% to 21,230 and Volt sales rose 72% to 2,633.. But Malibu sales fell back 11% to 11,630 and Traverse sales fell 20% to 7,430. Buick sales rose 10%, Cadillac sales rose 12% and GMC sales rose 4.7%. The new Cadillac ATS sold 2,979 units while the new Verano sold 4,820 units.

Chrysler said its 10% December gain concluded a year when sales rose 21% to 1.65 million vehicles, the highest in five years. Chrysler sold 152,367 vehicles in December and its market share grew to 11.2%, up from 10.5% in 2011.

Experts are predicting a December light-vehicle sales increase between 10% and 14%. For the full year, sales should rise about 13.5%. "December will be the icing on the cake for 2012 -- it's a strong close for a year that had significant auto sales growth throughout," said analyst Jessica Caldwell, in a prepared statement.

For the full year, Edmunds projected sales of 14.5 million, which would the highest annual sales total since 2007. That total is "more than a million better than most market forecasts at this time a year ago," wrote analyst Peter Nesvold, in a note.

U.S. light-vehicle sales totaled 12.8 million in 2011; 11.6 million in 2010; 10.3 million in 2009;13 million, the lowest total in 27 years, in 2008,and 16.1 million in 2007. From 1999 through 2007, sales exceeded 16 million.

The auto industry expects the positive trends to continue into 2013. LMC Automotive is forecasting sales of 15 million units this year, representing 4% growth.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.