Every month is important in the auto industry, but for most automakers, December holds special significance; as the last month of the year, we get annual sales numbers in addition to monthly figures, and automakers, consumers, and analysts are all able to see how good or bad the year actually was. And if January represents the beginning of a new year, December is also the close, the cap, the end of a chapter in automaker history. So you don’t have to spend hours in a muddle of sales reports, we bring you the winners and losers from December.
No automaker had a better December than BMW, and the German luxury brand’s 3 Series continued to lead the way. The gateway to BMW proved the newest 3 Series was a resounding success. The 3 Series’ larger sibling–the BMW 5 Series–had a stellar year as well, and sold twice as many units as the previous December. Not to be outshone, the BMW X3 and X5 crossovers held their own, accounting for more than 10,000 new purchases in December. Ludwig Willisch, president and CEO of BMW North America, said “the post-recession sales momentum that started in 2010 reached an unprecedented level in December, making us strongly confident and optimistic as we enter 2013.”
Suzuki actually saw an uptick in sales in December from previous months, after the automaker applied for bankruptcy and said it will exit its U.S. auto business. But Suzki’s December sales–despite the sudden surge–were still short of last December’s numbers. Suzuki’s poor sales could be blamed on a poor dealership network. Then again, the poor dealership network likely accounts for Suzuki’s poor sales; considering Suzuki didn’t even sell 2,000 models last month, it may be a good thing it’s choosing to focus on sales in other markets, and on its watercraft and motorcycle divisions.
To say December was kind to German automakers would be a drastic understatement; in Volkswagen’s case, it was the best December since 1970, a time when Richard Nixon was just starting his first term in the White House. The Volkswagen Passat midsize sedan was the automaker’s shining star in December, and was its second-most popular vehicle on the year, even outshining the perennial Vee-Dub best-seller, the Jetta. Jonathan Browning, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, said “the Volkswagen brand delivered another important step in our long-term growth plan. 2012 marked the third consecutive year of significant double-digit growth rates and we more than doubled our volume of 2009.” The newly launched Jetta Turbo Hybrid and Volkswagen Beetle Convertible will help Volkswagen start off the new year.
The 2013 Lincoln MKZ is new and looks good, but perhaps most importantly represents a successful shift, the start of a necessary deviation from the Ford brand. Lincoln sold fewer vehicles this December than last, and was down overall on the year. Lincoln says it’s looking to produce four new vehicles in the next few years, and if the luxury automaker is to be seen as relevant, they’ll need to be at least as good as the MKZ, and show differentiation from the Ford brand.
Hyundai and Korean sibling Kia recently admitted to inflating fuel economy numbers on some models. The twosome had to adjust overall fleet mpg from 27 mpg combined, to 26 mpg. But that news didn’t seem to matter much to Hyundai buyers, who made this December Hyundai’s best ever. Led by surging sales of the Elantra and Sonata, the Korean automaker sold nearly 60,000 vehicles this past month. The twosome also made the top ten best-selling cars in America list, moving more than 200,000 of each model in 2012. “We closed 2012 with strong demand in both volume and premium segments, and all-time sales records for December and the full year,” said John Krafcik, Hyundai’s North American CEO and president. Hyundai will add a third shift at production plants in 2013 to help meet demand on its most popular vehicles.
December’s biggest loser–perhaps after Suzuki exiting U.S. operations–is fellow fledgling Japanese automaker Mitsubishi. Unable to gain any traction all year, Mitsubishi was down 18 percent in December from 2011, and finished the year down sharply in the red. The Outlander Sport was one bright spot, as the crossover was able to capitalize on a general crossover fever in the U.S. After Suzuki’s departure, Mitsubishi insisted it would continue its own U.S. operations, but clearly something will have to change.
Acura sales were up sharply in December, and Acura parent Honda, fared even better. In the post-tsunami, earthquake era, the two are finally reaping the benefits of healthy production and delivery levels. The MDX has been Acura’s best-seller, and Honda’s tried-and-true nameplates–the Accord and Civic–returned to form in both sales numbers and in the critical eyes of the media. Honda had received a surplus of criticism aimed at the 2012 Civic, and the automaker responded by refreshing the vehicle for 2013, ahead of schedule. We’ve driven the new Civic, and if its continuous improvement Honda is after, it was able to achieve it with the 2013 model.
Jeep had a great 2012 overall, but sales of the Jeep Liberty dragged the automaker down in the last month of the year. On the bright side, the Wrangler and Cherokee sold about the same this December as the year prior, and are up overall on the year. The Cherokee–Jeep’s most important model–sold 154,734 models in 2012, up 21 percent from the year prior. The Jeep Compass may be in need of an overhaul, and was the only model to decline both in December and on the year.
Mercedes-Benz posted a gain of nearly 10 percent in December 2012 over the prior year, but that should come as no surprise as the German luxury automaker posted record sales on the year. Eclipsing the 300,000 mark, Mercedes-Benz was spearheaded by its perennial number one C-Class. Following closely behind was the E-Class, and the automaker’s popular M-Class had a record year leading the automaker’s SUVs. Steve Canon, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz, said “a strong product offensive backed our retail network’s commitment to providing a world-class ownership experience. We’re going to ride that momentum into 2013 with new products across the entire model line from entry point to flagship.”
Mazda took a gamble, and in December it continued to pay off. The Japanese automaker has developed its Skyactiv strategy aimed at improving efficiency, and so far it’s resonating with buyers. The 2013 Mazda CX-5, the first fully Skyactiv model, has been a resounding early success, leading the automaker to increase production to help meet soaring demand. December was Mazda’s best since 1994, and 2012 was the best sales year since 2007. The trend will likely continue as the 2014 Mazda6 goes on sale in North America in January. We got to drive the European version a few months ago, and were impressed.
Source: BMW, Suzuki, Volkswagen, Lincoln, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Honda, Acura