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Sneak Peek Into 2020 U.S. Auto Sales and 2021 Outlook

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Automakers have been gradually recovering from coronavirus-led sluggish demand and sales witnessed during the first half of 2020. Things have started looking up for the U.S. auto industry since third-quarter 2020 amid the easing of COVID-induced restrictions, pent-up demand, easier credit conditions and preference for personal mobility. Sales recovery continued in fourth-quarter 2020, with various automakers ending 2020 on a high note.

According to JD Power forecasts, new vehicle sales are likely to have grown 1% year over year in December 2020, when adjusted for the number of selling days. Another thing worth noting is the fact that while retail auto sales are finally gaining traction, fleet sales to rental car companies, corporations and government agencies have been rather slow to recover.

Importantly, the disruption caused by the deadly contagion snapped the five-year record of annual U.S. auto sales, which topped 17 million units. While the official overall U.S. auto sales data for 2020 is supposed to come out shortly, total deliveries came in at 14.5 million units, per Wards Intelligence. This implies a year-over-year decline of 15% and marks the lowest sales level since 2012.

Diving into the Sales Report

Here’s a rundown of the 2020 U.S. sales report of chief auto bigwigs including Detroit’s Big 3, namely General Motors (GM - Free Report) , Ford (F - Free Report) and Fiat Chrysler ; Japan’s Big 3 — Toyota (TM - Free Report) , Honda (HMC - Free Report) and Nissan (NSANY - Free Report) ; and Germany’s leading automaker Volkswagen (VWAGY - Free Report) .

General Motors: The leading Detroit automaker’s U.S. sales for the full year declined 12% year over year to 2,547,399 units. With sales gradually on the mend, it witnessed an uptick of around 5% year on year for the fourth quarter, marking the only quarterly sales rise for the firm in 2020. Robust pickup deliveries were the bright spot for General Motors, led by record deliveries of GMC Sierra and impressive sales gain in Chevrolet Silverado. General Motors currently sports a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy). You can see the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank  stocks here.

Ford: General Motors’ closest peer, Ford saw 2020 U.S. vehicle sales plunge 15.6% year over year. Sales fell 10% for fourth-quarter 2020 from the corresponding period of 2019. While sales of F-Series for the full year dipped 12.2% year over year, it maintained its position as the nation’s best-selling pickup for the 44th consecutive year. Notably, sales of Explorer SUVs soared 20.9% year over year in the last year.

Fiat Chrysler: This Detroit-based auto giant’s full-year and fourth-quarter 2020 sales slid 17% and 8%, respectively, on a year-over-year basis. While fourth-quarter retail sales rose year over year, low fleet orders dented overall results. Sales of the Dodge brand suffered 37% drop in 2020. While sales from both RAM and Jeep brands stumbled year over year in 2020, the former recorded the best month of retail sales ever in December.

Toyota: U.S. sales of the biggest Japan-based automaker contracted 11.3% year over year to 2,112,941 units in 2020. Nonetheless, the automaker finished the year on a high note, with December sales up more than 20% year on year. Notably, RAV4 SUV retained its spot for the best-selling SUV in the United States for the fourth consecutive year in 2020. Also, Tacoma held on to the title of the best-selling small pick-up for the 16th straight year.

Honda: Toyota’s closest peer, Honda, saw U.S. sales dwindle more than 16% year on year in 2020. Total sales for the last month were down 0.1% from a year ago. Notably, truck sales outperformed car sales both in December and full-year 2020. Amid soaring popularity of green vehicles, Honda reported record sales of the same for the third consecutive year. Meanwhile, CR-V remained the best-selling vehicle of the firm for the eighth straight year in 2020. 

Nissan: Markedly, Nissan had its worst year in more than a decade, with 2020 U.S. auto sales plunging more than 33% year over year. Even for the fourth quarter of 2020, sales tailed off 19.3%. Markedly, both its truck and car divisions witnessed massive weakness during the year, with sales tanking more than 29% and 39%, respectively, on a year-on-year basis. Sales fell across all brands apart from Kicks.

Volkswagen: U.S. sales of this auto bigwig ebbed 10% year over year for 2020. Nonetheless, sales climbed 11% year on year for the fourth quarter of 2020, primarily driven by strong demand from the Atlas brand. Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s hot selling vehicle — Tiguan — recorded a sales uptick of 1.9% for fourth-quarter 2020. However, the same declined around 8% for the full year.

Will the Road be Any Smoother in 2021?

Strong retail auto sales in the second half of 2020 is stoking hopes for 2021 despite weak fleet sales and the second wave of coronavirus. Carmakers are expected to continue the momentum witnessed in the final months of 2020 well into this year.

Consumers’ confidence is likely to be boosted amid widespread vaccination drive, $900-billion coronavirus aid bill and super low interest, leading to increasing spending on these big-ticket discretionary items. The wave of optimism can be well gauged by auto biggies like General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen, which believe that resilient consumer spending will continue in 2021. Customers will opt for private vehicles as against public transportation and ride-sharing services amid the social-distancing milieu, thereby lifting sales numbers of the auto biggies.

While secular risks remain, the auto market is not likely to witness steep declines this year as recorded in 2020. Although the market is expected to recover at a steady pace, sales are not likely to rebound to 2019 levels until the next year. Per IHS Markit, U.S. vehicle sales for 2021 are likely to grow 10% year over year to 16 million units.  

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