Honda surprises with gain in resurgent U.S.

Bloomberg

Honda Motor Co. ended eight months of shrinking U.S. sales with an unexpected January gain as recovering auto demand also buoyed growth for Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co.

Honda on Wednesday posted an 8.8 percent increase from a year earlier, compared with an average estimate of a 1.2 percent drop in a Bloomberg survey of six analysts. Sales rose 7.5 percent at Toyota, Asia’s largest automaker; 10 percent at Nissan; and 15 percent at Hyundai. Japanese and South Korean brands gained 13 percent, topping the industry’s 11 percent, Autodata Corp. said.

“Finally, Honda is getting back on its feet again,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Edmunds.com, an automotive pricing and data company in Santa Monica, California.

Continued recovery in the U.S. economy combined with pent-up consumer demand to replace aging vehicles pushed January sales to a 14.2 million annualized rate, the highest since August 2009 during the U.S. government’s cash-for-clunkers trade-in program. The average age of U.S. cars and trucks has risen to a record 10.8 years, according to R.L. Polk & Co.

“Some people are starting to feel comfortable enough in the economy that they are willing to buy a car,” said Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics Inc., an auto consultant in Birmingham, Michigan. “Others are saying, ‘I’ve got to replace this old car because it’s nickel and diming me to death.’”

Among U.S. carmakers, Chrysler Group LLC, majority owned by Fiat SpA, had a 44 percent increase. General Motors Co. reported a decline of 6.1 percent, better than the average estimate of a 7.3 percent drop from eight analysts, and Ford Motor Co.’s light-vehicle sales rose 7.3 percent.

Toyota’s sales of Toyota, Lexus and Scion models rose to 124,540 vehicles last month from 115,856 a year earlier, aided by a 56 percent jump for Camry sedans. The company’s increase exceeded the 7 percent average of six analysts’ estimates.

“The Camry results could have been even better,” Bob Carter, Toyota’s group vice president of U.S. sales, said in a conference call. The company didn’t anticipate that the Camry SE version would sell as well as it has, he said.

“The Camry SE is bringing in new and younger buyers at levels we have not previously experienced, with a median age of 45,” Carter said. To meet demand for the version, Toyota is adjusting the production mix to more than 40 percent for the Camry SE from 8 percent a year ago, he said.

Honda, the nation’s third-largest automaker, said it sold 83,009 Honda and Acura vehicles, up from 76,269 a year earlier. Deliveries rose 50 percent for a smaller Civic released last year to mixed reviews, and 16 percent for the revamped compact CR-V crossover.

The company’s U.S. sales had fallen every month starting in May after production was disrupted by the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan and by flooding in Thailand later in the year.

“Honda’s return to full strength on the manufacturing front is already beginning to pay dividends on the sales floor,” John Mendel, the Tokyo-based automaker’s U.S. executive vice president, said in a statement.

Prius, Volt in mileage duel

Bloomberg

Toyota Motor Corp. expects its rechargeable Prius, which can run 15 miles (24 km) on its battery alone, to get a higher fuel-economy rating than General Motors Co.’s Volt plug-in hybrid.

Toyota now sees its plug-in Prius getting a U.S. rating of 50 mpg (80 kpg) in combined city and highway driving running solely as a hybrid, and 95 mpg-equivalent when its lithium-ion battery pack is frequently charged. The Chevrolet Volt, which can go more than 30 miles (48 kpg) on a charge, is rated at 37 mpg and 94 mpg-e when drivers mainly rely on battery power.

“It’s still an estimate, but we are confident it’s going to be 95,” Bob Carter, group vice president of Toyota’s U.S. sales unit, told reporters in La Jolla, California, on Jan. 31. An official rating from the Environmental Protection Agency will come “in a couple weeks,” with deliveries starting in March, he said.

Toyota is targeting a record 220,000 units in U.S. sales this year for its four-vehicle Prius line, which includes the original hatchback, Prius v wagon, Prius c subcompact and the plug-in.

GM, with its Chevrolet Volt, and Nissan Motor Co., with its all-electric Leaf, aim to surpass Toyota as the industry’s largest seller of autos propelled by advanced powertrains.

In September, Toyota estimated the plug-in Prius would average 49 mpg when driven only as a hybrid, and 87 mpg-e when combining frequent battery pack charging. Toyota’s standard Prius is rated at 50 mpg.

The improved estimate arose from further testing of its battery pack and additional “control programs” newly developed for the plug-in model, Satoshi Ogiso, chief engineer for Toyota’s Prius models, told reporters Wednesday in La Jolla.

Bragging rights for Toyota may be short-lived. Ford Motor Co. has said that starting late this year it will sell a plug-in version of its redesigned Fusion sedan it expects to get a 100 mpg-e rating from regulators.

Nissan’s Leaf is rated by the U.S. at 99 mpg-e, using no gasoline. It averages about 70 miles before requiring a recharge. The Leaf starts at $35,200, according to a company website, and it is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.