Explaining Southern California's economy

2012 auto sales: Trucks are back, but so are the Japanese carmakers

2013 Ford F-150

Ford

The Ford F-150 pickup had a very good December — and a nice 2012, as Detroit carmakers saw sales of pickups recover. But Japanese carmakers also fared well.

All the major automakers who sell vehicles in the United States have reported December sales and there are two main storylines:

•Trucks are back

•The Japanese are, too

Let's tackle the second one first. After the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, Toyota and Honda lost significant market share in the U.S., where both had thrived up to that point. The catastrophes severely disrupted the global automotive supply chain. Although both companies operate plants in the U.S., they weren't able to built enough vehicles to meet rising demand.

Nissan fared better, largely because its supply chains are less concentrated in Japan.

General Motors reclaimed the top spot in U.S. market share, and Ford was able to surge past Honda, which was entering something of an identity crisis as U.S. consumers fell out of love with the Accord and Civic sedans they had reliably purchased for years.

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LA Auto Show: With Chevy Cruze, Sonic, and Spark, GM has cracked the code on small cars

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

The 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV is introduced at the LA Auto Show. It's the smallest vehicle in the entire GM lineup. It's all-electric. And its shows that GM is at long last taking small cars seriously.

General Motors.

Small cars.

Two concepts that, a decade ago, few would have uttered in the same breath. GM had left the small car market for dead. While it focused on trucks and SUVs and their nice, fat, profit margins, and also dedicated itself to turning Cadillac into a high-performance brand while simultaneously saving Buick, it left low-margin small cars to Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, and Kia. 

Honda and Toyota got started in the U.S. market with small cars, so they always knew what they were doing. Hyundai and Kia, the South Korean upstarts, simply copied the Japanese playbook. 

Then the financial crisis struck. The federal government bailed out GM, then the company went bankrupt. Somewhere amid one of its numerous pre-Chapter 11 restructurings, GM got religion on small cars.

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Photos: LA Auto Show highlights include Ford's new Fiesta, concepts from Honda and Nissan, the improved GT-R

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

Ford's redesigned 2014 Fiesta at the LA Auto Show. There a 3-cylinder engine under that snout. That's right, a 3-cylinder engine.

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

The new Ford Fiesta retains the compact Euro-hatchback design that makes it a winner for versatility. It's half small car, half wagon.

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

Nissan's Hi-Cross Concept crossover. It's a small crossover SUV with the bold styling that has become a hallmark of Nissan vehicles.

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

A single piece of glass spans from the windshield to the rear hatch on Nissan's Hi-Cross Concept vehicle. Let the sun and moonshine in!

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

Honda Accord's plug-in hybrid vehicle on display at the LA Auto Show. The evolution of the ever-popular sedan continues.

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

Honda's EV-Ster electric concept car. In fact, it's really and electric concept roadster — and it looks like something a kid who really, really likes space ships would dream up.

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

The Honda EV-Ster Concept is an electric car with a throwback roadster vibe. If you're throwing back to the 23rd century and like to hang out with space aliens.

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

The interior of Honda's electric concept car EV-Ster. Look Ma, no steering wheel!

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

2014 Nissan GT-R at the LA Auto Show. It's not a brave new look for Nissan's 545-horsepower supercar. But it's still a GT-R. And it's still Godzilla.

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

Inside, the 2014 Nissan GT-R finally shows some manners. But don't be fooled! All that stitched leather hides a cruel heart that wants to do nothing but go very, very fast.

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Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

The Nissan GT-R doesn't like speed bumps. Doesn't like them at all.


Earlier  Wednesday, I blogged about how the 2012 L.A. Auto Show is less about green cars and concept cars than it is about cars as rolling platforms for smartphones and apps. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of save-the-world and see-the-future cars in the mix (as well as one or two rides designed to frighten small animals)! It wouldn't be the L.A. Auto Show without them!

Flip through the slide show for some highlights of the good, the bad, and the high-concept.

THE GOOD

2014 Ford Fiesta

The redesign of Ford's popular subcompact comes with an interesting new wrinkle: a 1-liter, 3-cylinder turbocharged version. That's just one more cylinder than a lot of motorcycles. The turbo — Ford calls it EcoBoost — squeezes more power of of engines that are highly fuel-efficient. The styling may be a bit too Euro-hatchback for a lot of Americans, but the trend of smaller engines delivering the same power, performance, and comfort of their larger siblings isn't just a trend a this year's auto show. It's a trend in the entire auto industry.

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September auto sales: A 15-million sales year?

Ford And GM Report Large Drops In Monthly Sales

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

September U.S. auto sales were solid for most carmakers. The market is now on pace to see its best year since before the financial crisis.

Most of the major automakers reported positive U.S. sales for September — and even laggards Ford and Nissan contained their fairly modest losses. The big winners were Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda.

In the case of the Japanese Big Two, this is particularly important, as both were hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami that crushed their sales in 2011.

The U.S. auto market is the most competitive in the world. It essentially collapsed during the financial crisis, but it has rebounded substantially. The U.S. is now on track to see nearly 15 million in new vehicles sold in 2012, after a lot of analysts expected something closer to 14.5 million. During the dark days of 2009, that number was slightly more than 10 million - not enough sales to support the number of carmakers who sell cars in the U.S. market.

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GM posts record 2011 profit, with most coming from toughest auto market

Matthew DeBord

Don't think cool cars can some in small packages? No so. The new Chevy Sonic is proof that General Motors can finally do a tiny ride that commands attention.

Good news today for General Motors: it generated its highest annual profit ever in 2011. That's $7.6 billion. And yes, you read that first sentence right: highest annual profit ever. Higher than when GM owned half the U.S. market. Higher than when it was the largest industrial concern on the planet.

This is remarkable for two reasons, one obvious, one not. First the obvious: three years ago, GM had to be bailed out by the taxpayer before entering bankruptcy. It was under fierce attack in North America from Toyota and others. The future looked, if not completely dim, then not exactly luminous.

Now the not-obvious. Most of GM's 2011 profit came from North America. Some analysts have pointed to this as a problem and highlighted GM's struggles with its main European division, Opel, which it decided to hold on to rather than sell, post-Chapter 11. (Other observers, notably Slate's Matt Yglesias, have complained that all the rah-rah around GM suggests that America is still too close to the auto-industrial business model that built the country in the 20th century.)

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