Toyota overtakes GM in 2021 sales; Ford scores in garbage time

·4-min read

General Motors slid to second place in 2021 U.S. auto sales, ceding first place to Toyota by approximately 100,000 units in a still-tumultuous Covid recovery market plagued by lingering supply chain issues. While many automakers are now in a position to start building cars again (with some even altering available options in order to build complete units), the chip shortage has already taken its toll, and getting units into customer hands remains a challenge.

Toyota sold approximately 2.3 million cars in the U.S. in 2021, to GM's 2.2 million. GM had been tops in sales for 90 years, since 1931, when it passed Ford Motor Co. For decades, GM proudly touted itself as the "world's largest automaker" in advertising and even press releases, though it lost that title a decade ago in the run-up to its historic 2009 bankruptcy. The Detroit automaker remained No. 1 in the U.S., though occasionally it would slip due for a month or a quarter due to inventory issues. Under CEO Mary Barra, the company has emphasized profitability over volume, withdrawing from segments and markets that are not lucrative.

GM's hardships were largely due to its inability to deliver bread-and-butter pickup trucks due to parts shortages. While assembly lines are moving again and GM dealers are starting to see the best inventory numbers since a year ago, the damage is already done. Despite a market aching for new trucks, GM moved about 64,000 fewer Silverados and 4,000 fewer Sierras than it did in lockdown-stricken 2020 because the parts just weren't there to build them.

That story repeated at Ford, but with fewer indications that truck production is recovering in the face of strong demand. Even in Q4, when Ford outsold all other automakers in the U.S, F-Series volumes were down nearly 16% – twice as much as they were over the course of the year (7.8%). Ranger likewise tumbled in Q4 (-29%), weighing down its 6.6% slide for 2021.

Stellantis had better news on the pickup front. Ram volumes took a dive in Q4, but the pickup line improved over 2020 by 1% alongside its ProMaster offerings, which improved by 25 and 40% over 2020, respectively. Gladiator was up 16% for the year, outselling both Cherokee and Compass. How much of that was due to production shortfalls of the two smaller, unibody cars is unclear, but both slid from their 2020 volumes by more than 30%. That good news didn't translate to growth, however. Volumes were down 2.3% overall in 2021 and 17.5% in Q4.

At Honda, a strong surge in volume early in the year attributed to careful stockpiling of chips faded in the second half. Overall, volumes were down 21.5% in Q4 (-26.3% at Acura, -20.9% for the core brand) but remained up over 2020's for the full year (8.9%).

Mazda finished 2021 up just over 20% despite late-year inventory shortages. Every model's sales improved over 2020's with the exception of the CX-3, which was discontinued. Porsche's full-year results were similar. The German performance-car builder saw a 22% increase for the year despite stagnation in Q4.

Mitsubishi, on the other hand, has nothing but good news to share. Q4 sales were up more than 68% over the same period in 2020; full-year 2021 total sales increased by nearly 17%. This is just the fourth time the brand has topped 100,000 sales since 2007, Mitsubishi said in its release.

Nissan finished the year up just under 9% over 2020, but had a Q4 slump of nearly 20%. Hyundai saw a drop of 23% for the month compared to December 2020 despite setting a company record for total retail sales in a calendar year. Kia likewise surpassed its previous year-long best (retail and fleet combined) by nearly 10% despite a December drop.

Subaru – the Little (Boxer) Engine that Could for several years – managed to hold its decline to just under 5% for the year after another supply-constrained month (and quarter). Volvo flipped that script slightly, eating a heavy drop in Q4 but maintaining a nearly-11% uplift for the full year.

Gauging sales in relation to 2020's performance has been dicey this year at best, but the second half of 2020 saw strong rebounds as dealers re-opened after spring lockdowns. In many cases, declines in the latter half of 2021 are as much an indicator of strong second-half sales from the previous year as they are of continued chip shortages. Hyundai and Kia have posted five months of consecutive declines, for example, despite setting the aforementioned sales records.

Most major automakers should release their results by the end of the week. We will keep this story updated as numbers come in.

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