6 Hot Cars in January, Starting with Ford Fusion

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- January was a big month for hot cars, led by the Ford ( F) Fusion, which showed a 65% sales gain, finally managing to fulfill its potential as dealers had sufficient inventory available.

In recent months, Ford has underperformed in the critical mid-sized sedan category because dealers didn't have enough Fusions. The lack of cars held back overall Ford sales since Fusion is generally Ford's top-selling car. With 22,399 sales in January, Fusion was the fourth best-selling U.S. car and the sixth best-selling vehicle, and Ford sales gained 22%.

But it wasn't just the Fusion that enabled a 14% industry sales jump in January and a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate of 15.3 million light vehicles.

The country is full of hot new cars, from the two that lead secondary brands Cadillac and Buick to the best symbol of Volkswagen growth in the U.S. to the new Toyota Avalon. Not to mention the 2013 Honda ( HMC) Accord, the second best-selling U.S. car, which sold 10,000 more units this January than last January.

Auto sales were so strong in January that of all the 16 models sold by Chrysler, only one currently produced vehicle, the Dodge Caravan, showed a decline in sales, down 39% to 4,965.

If we were making a list of the month's Not-So-Hot cars, the top two vehicles would be Dodge Caravan and the new Lincoln MKZ, which showed a 73% decline to 453 units, reflecting slow deliveries of the 2013 model.

Ford sales chief Ken Czubay, speaking on the company's sales call, took pains to explain that MKZ deliveries are down because Ford is taking extra care to make final-stage quality checks. "We recognize that this is slowing our shipment of MKZs to our dealers and customers, but this is the right action to take for our reinvented Lincoln brand," he said.

Chevrolet Malibu would also make the list: sales rose 8% to 15,823, but probably should have been higher. "The impressive sales performance of most vehicles in the Chevy line-up help mask a significant issue: The all-new and high-volume Malibu's sales were up a bit but nowhere near what they should be for a new model," said Edmunds.com analyst Michelle Krebs, in a prepared statement.

"The estimated true cost of incentives for Malibu averaged $3,200 per vehicle sold in January: lease subsidies alone averaged over $4,000 per Malibu sold in January," Krebs said. "By comparison, the Ford Fusion had blistering sales in January; they are selling as fast as Ford can make them."

But why focus on the negative? Here are the six hottest cars of January.

Ford Fusion

Ford Fusion sales rose 64.5% to 22,399. That's not only a big jump over the same month a year earlier, but also reflected the inability to get 2013 Fusions in previous months.

In October, Fusion sales fell 30% to 12,690. In November, sales fell 24% to 15,125. In December, sales fell 4.5% to 21,622.

"I've been talking about us getting the appropriate (Fusion) inventories for the last few months," Czubay said during on the company's sales call. Asked if sales were simply catching up with unmet demand, he said, "It's hard to say if it was catch-up. We anticipate it will continue at this pace."

Cadillac ATS

Cadillac ATS sales totaled 2,781 in January, a month when ATS was named car of the year at the Detroit Auto Show.

On the GM ( GM) sales call, sales chief Kurt McNeil declared, "We haven't seen a January this strong since 2008 ... the tempo of sales was strong from start to finish during the month (and) we achieved it with lower incentive spending." He said GM benefited from three factors: pent-up demand, "great products in key segments," and "the buzz at the auto show."

"The Detroit show was truly magical for GM," McNeil said. The unveiling of the Corvette Stingray and the Cadillac ELR drew a lot of attention. But, he said, "Cadillac ATS winning North American car of the year was an even bigger deal for us, given our global aspirations for the brand."

ATS is now the third best-selling car in the luxury compact segment (after BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class) and helped Cadillac to deliver its best January retail sales in 23 years, McNeil said.

Buick Verano

It isn't just the ATS that has GM excited. Executives also touted the Buick Verano compact luxury sedan.

Verano January sales totaled 3,660, making it the second best-selling Buick model after Enclave. Brand January sales rose 32% to 13,463, while January retail sales were the highest in nine years and were up 30% from a year earlier.

U.S sales of the Verano began in November 2011. The car is sold in China as the Buick Excelle GT.

On the call, Bryan Sweeney, vice president of Buick, declared: "We think all three Buick sedans are working together. Look at what Verano did. It has good momentum and 'conquest' is over 51%," meaning that more than half of buyers previously owned other brands.

Honda Accord

The new Fusion may have drawn more attention in Detroit, given its more dramatic restyling, but January sales of the new 2013 Honda Accord, the second best-selling car and the fourth best-selling vehicle, gained 75% to 23,924 units.

Accord sales gained more than 10,000 units from the same month a year earlier and led Honda to a 12.8% sales January. Honda introduced its new Accord in September.

"The all-new Accord has the Honda brand right where we left off in 2012 - powering significant sales gains in the new year," said John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president of sales, in a prepared statement.

VW Passat

Passat sold 8,856 units in January, up 40% from the same month a year earlier, for its best January ever.

Passat trailed Jetta as the second best-selling U.S. car for Volkswagen, which saw January sales gain 6.7% to 29,018 units, marking its best January since 1974. The Jetta sedan sold 9,089 units.

"With all the buzz that comes with the (Detroit) Auto Show, the release of our Super Bowl advertisement, 'Get Happy,' and a full line-up of new and refreshed vehicles, Volkswagen is off to a solid start in 2013," said Jonathan Browning, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, in a prepared statement. "While the economic conditions continue to be somewhat uncertain, we expect Volkswagen to achieve continued growth and to outpace the industry this year."

Toyota Avalon

January sales of the 2013 Avalon sales totaled 4,840, up 50% in the first full month of sales.

The large sedan, unveiled at the 2012 New York Auto Show, is built on the same platform as the Lexus ES. It went on sale in the U.S. in December 2012.

Overall, Toyota ( TM) January sales rose 21% to 141,514 units. "The sales pace we saw in the fourth quarter of last year rolled into January, exceeding our expectations for the industry," said Bill Fay, general manager, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A, in a prepared statement. "With the 2013 Avalon and 2013 RAV4 off to a great start, our focus remains firmly on new products and taking care of our customers."

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

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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