Automakers miss the mark but 2013 flirts with pre-recession peaks

Dismal December auto sales

The top four automakers in the U.S. market missed December sales expectations, but 2013 will still easily be the best year for the industry since before the recession.

General Motors said that the U.S. auto industry will have December U.S. auto sales at a 15.6 million-vehicle annualized selling rate, well below the 16 million vehicles expected by 27 economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters.

(Read more: GM caps busy week by naming Barra as new chief)

The late December holiday season is generally one of the heaviest sales periods at U.S. auto dealerships.

2014 Chrysler 300 SRT8
Image Source: Chrysler

Sales that may have occurred in December were pulled ahead to November because of a late-month, four-day Thanksgiving weekend, said John Felice, head of sales at Ford

(Read more: The road ahead: Luxury booms and incentives soar)

December auto sales were also hampered by snowy and icy weather over parts of the country late in the month, said Chrysler spokesman Ralph Kisiel.

Each month, auto sales are seen as an early indicator of consumer spending.

For all of 2013, U.S. auto sales are expected to finish near 15.6 million vehicles, up about 8 percent.

Ford Dec US sales up 1.8% but misses estimates

That would be the best sales year since pre-recession 2007, when 16.1 million vehicles were sold in the U.S. market. At the height of the recession in 2009 sales fell to 10.4 million.

GM's sales fell 6 percent, to 230,157 new vehicles, below analysts' expectations of a slight sales gain.

Sales of GM's Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck fell 16 percent in the month.

Ford's sales rose 2 percent, to 218,058, also below analysts' expectations. Its F-Series pickup truck, the best-selling model in North America, had an 8 percent sales gain in December.

Toyota's U.S. December sales fell 1.7 percent to 190,843 vehicles, versus expectations of a slight gain.

Chrysler expects the industry to show a December annualized selling rate of 15.8 million vehicles.

Chrysler on Friday reported a 6 percent gain last month in its U.S. auto sales, to 161,007 vehicles. That was the automaker's best December since 2007, but still narrowly missed analyst expectations. Ram pickup truck sales rose 17 percent.

Jeep sales rose 34 percent in the month, led by the new Cherokee, which sold four times as well in December as the vehicle it replaced, the Jeep Liberty, did a year ago.

The top four automakers by sales are, in order, GM, Ford, Toyota Motor Corp and Chrysler.

GM's sales for the year rose 7 percent to 2.8 million vehicles, and Ford's U.S. annual sales of 2.5 million vehicles rose 11 percent.

For the year, Chrysler's U.S. sales rose 9 percent to 1.8 million vehicles.

Toyota's annual U.S. sales rose 7 percent to 2.2 million vehicles.

While some economists and analysts expect 2014 sales to rise to between 16 million and 16.5 million vehicles, there is growing concern that competition will intensify, leading to higher incentives and lower profit for companies.

Research firm said vehicle transaction prices fell by an average of $200 per vehicle in December, or 0.6 percent, over last year while incentives were up $103 per vehicle, or 4 percent.

Chrysler is majority-owned by Italy's Fiat SpA. Earlier this week, the two companies announced that Fiat would buy the remainder of Chrysler that is currently owned by a United Auto Workers healthcare trust, for $4.35 billion. That deal is expected to close by Jan. 20.

--By Reuters