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

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.
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.

But the tables have turned. GM and Ford saw December new vehicle sales gains, from last December, of 5 and 2 percent respectively. Toyota and Honda, meanwhile, saw 9 and 26 percent increases. Chrysler continued a nice run under its new owner, Fiat, notching a 10 percent year-over-year gain in September.

Overall, it looks as if total new vehicle sales for 2012 will come in at 14.5 million, the best since 2007. At times during the year, the U.S. was on a pace to hit 15 million, a very far cry from the 10 million in sales during the depths of the Great Recession, but also a ways off from 2005, when Americans bought 17 million new cars and trucks.

Analysts project 15.5 million new sales for 2013, but the market may do better than that, particularly given that the U.S. auto fleet continues to be older than ever. The average age of a vehicle is an unprecedented 11 years.

The Japanese resurgence will undoubtedly continue and the Detroit Big Three will give back their gains in market share. But there's a silver lining.

Pickup trucks.

The housing recovery in the U.S. has brought the pickup truck market back in a big way. Both GM and Ford sold hundreds of thousands of full-size pickups in 2012. Toyota and Honda don't really factor in this market (although Toyota does build pickups). The two markets are inextricably linked: when contractors and construction workers are working, they buy pickups.

And pickups equal profits for Detroit because GM, Ford, and Chrysler can make considerably more on them than they can on small cars or even mass-market sedans.

The auto industry has been one of the few truly good stories of revival during a fairly weak recovery from the Great Recession. The year just ended suggests that the U.S. market is still the most competitive and robust in the world, and that 2012's momentum will only build in 2013.

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