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Auto sales in the U.S. grew 13.4% to the five-year high of 14.5 million vehicles in 2012 including a 9% rise to 1.4 million in December last year. A host of macroeconomic factors helped the industry reach the height. They include improving consumer confidence, falling unemployment and improvement in home sales and prices.

Sales were also fueled by strong pent-up demand, due to both aging vehicles (average age of a car reached 11 years in the U.S.) and the need to replace damaged vehicles from Hurricane Sandy. Banks were also friendlier as they offered greater access to loans with lower interest rates.

Volkswagen AG (VLKAY) topped all the automakers in terms of sales growth. Meanwhile, Japanese automakers, including Toyota Motor Corp. (TM - Analyst Report), Honda Motor Co. (HMC - Analyst Report) and Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY), toppled the U.S. automakers after struggling with a string of vehicle safety recalls and earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Let us peek at the individual automakers’ sales.

U.S. Automakers

General Motors Company (GM - Analyst Report) posted a meager 3.7% rise in sales to 2.6 million vehicles in 2012, including a 5% rise in December to 245,733 vehicles, due to weak truck and Cadillac sales. Its top-selling vehicles for the year were Chevy Sonic subcompact and Chevrolet Equinox crossover sports utility vehicle (SUV).

Ford Motor Co. (F - Analyst Report) sales edged up 4.7% to 2.3 million vehicles, including a 1.9% gain in December to 214,222 vehicles, as sales of some of its highest selling vehicles, Ford Escape SUV (2.6% gain) and Fusion sedan (2.7% decline), were hurt by vehicle safety recalls. The company’s newly launched C-Max hybrid did very well in December.

Chrysler Group – controlled by Italy’s Fiat SpA (FIATY) – saw a 21% growth in sales to 1.65 million units, driven by strong sales of its Dodge Caravan minivan and the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV. The company’s December sales escalated 10% to 152,357 units.

Japanese Automakers

Toyota Motor reported an impressive 26.6% jump in sales to 2.08 million vehicles in 2012, including a 9% rise to 194,143 units in December. The company saw strong sales across its lineups as it recouped the dealer lots with new vehicles. Camry was the best selling vehicle in the year.

Honda Motor recorded a hefty 24.0% rise in sales to 1.42 million vehicles in the year, including a 26% growth in December to 132,774 vehicles. Civic and Accord were the top selling vehicles in the year.

Nissan Motors witnessed a 9.5% growth in sales to 1.1 million vehicles, however, its December sales went down 1.6% to 99,290 units. The company’s Nissan brand sales exceeded 1 million mark for the first time in its history. Nissan Altima was the top-selling vehicle in the year (302,934 units).

Other Automakers

Daimler AG’s (DDAIF) Mercedes-Benz reported a 15.4% rise in sales to 305,072 vehicles in 2012 driven by new models and a strong dealer network. However, it was overthrown by Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (“BMW”) with sales increase of 14.0% to 281,460 units driven by its strong 5-Series sales (72% gain).

Volkswagen posted a staggering 35.1% rise in sales to 438,133 vehicles in 2012, including a 35.4% rise to 44,005 units in December. The company’s Passat brand was the sales driver, both during the month, when it more than doubled, and year, when it increased more than fivefold.

Hyundai Motor Co. sales grew 9% to 703,007 vehicles in the year, including a 17% rise to 59,435 vehicles in December. It is the Korean automaker’s best year in the U.S. The company’s three-door compact car Veloster did exceptionally well during the year with a nearly fourfold increase in sales to 34,862 units.

What to Expect in 2013?

We expect the 2012 tailwinds to continue in 2013. The industry is expected to scale new heights based on improving consumer macroeconomic conditions. As far as the threats of “fiscal cliff” are concerned, good news is that only 2% of vehicle buyers fall in the uppermost tax bracket, according to a chief economist of Ford, which implies that tax increases will not impact auto sales significantly.

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