NEW YORK – Lifted by an improving economy and falling fuel prices, Japanese automakers ended 2014 on a strong note with Toyota Motor Corp. hitting a double-digit increase in December sales and Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. each breaking annual sales records, data released Monday by Autodata Corp. showed.
Positive economic indicators combined with the recent drop in gas prices gave a final year-end boost to an industry that saw its fifth year of annual growth in new car sales since the recession in the U.S.
Dealers continued a 10-month streak of annual gains in new car sales in December and contributed to the market growing 5.9 percent to 16.52 million vehicles in 2014. The industry last breached the 16 million mark in 2007.
“Thanks to better-than-expected growth, improving consumer confidence and increased employment levels, this strength will carry the auto industry to a sixth straight year of growth in 2015,” Toyota group Vice President Bill Fay said in a monthly sales call, adding that low interest rates and strong replacement demand will continue to drive industry growth.
Among Japanese automakers, Toyota posted a 12.7 percent increase, selling 215,057 vehicles in December, making it the third largest automaker in the country. The company credited a “strong economic tailwind” for its annual sales increase of 6.2 percent, selling 2.37 million cars in the year, the highest since 2007.
Toyota said the RAV4 and Highlander SUVs, as well as the entire light truck segment, broke a sales record for the month.
“In many respects, our results reflected industry trends as light trucks, especially SUVs and crossovers accounted for much of the gains,” Fay said, adding that SUV annual sales surpassed 687,000 and hit a record for the segment.
Honda sold 137,281 vehicles in the month, up just 1.5 percent from a year before. The company said it had its second best year ever, selling 1.54 million cars, as falling fuel prices drove some car-buyers toward less fuel efficient vehicles, such as trucks or SUVs, while consumer demand for its core Accord and Civic sedans remained strong.
“Despite the price of gasoline dropping well below $3 a gallon in many markets, Honda’s strong balanced lineup of cars and trucks helped us achieve record sales in 2014,” Jeff Conrad, senior vice president at American Honda, said in a press release. “We will build on this momentum with some great new products coming in 2015.”
Nissan sold 117,318 vehicles in the month, up 6.9 percent from a year before. The automaker posted an 11.1 percent increase in its annual sales, selling 1.39 million cars — the most in its history.
Nissan said seven models, including the Altima sedan and Rogue SUV, hit sales records in the year, while the Leaf electric car reached a milestone with 30,000 sold in the year.
Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., the maker of Subaru cars, expanded December sales by 24.3 percent to 49,923 units, upping its annual total by 21 percent to 513,693 cars.
Among the three major U.S. automakers, General Motors Co. posted a 19.3 percent increase in sales, selling 274,483 vehicles in the month. The largest manufacturer in the country sold 2.94 million cars in the year, up 5.3 percent from 2013.
The Detroit-based company said the “blockbuster” end to the year was driven by the improving economy and performance in key segments, such as a 43 percent increase in truck deliveries in the month.
“The momentum the economy carried through 2014 accelerated in the fourth quarter,” GM’s chief economist, Mustafa Mohatarem, said in a press release. “Car-buying fundamentals remain strong and we expect higher industry sales in 2015.”
Ford Motor Co. sold 219,369 vehicles in the month, up just 1.3 percent, making it the second largest automaker in the country. Ford delivered 2.47 million cars in the year, down 0.6 percent.
The company attributed the slight reduction to a 15 percent reduction in fleet sales and manufacturing changes as it prepares to launch the 2015 F-150 pickup with an aluminum body. Despite the weak increase, the automaker said its sales for the month were the best since 2005 and hit annual sales records for many of its models.
“Fusion and Escape posted record years, and our newest products — including Mustang and Transit and Lincolns — are attracting strong customer demand,” John Felice, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service said in a press release.
FCA U.S. LLC, the recently renamed maker of Chrysler cars, delivered 189,410 cars in the month, up 20.4 percent from a year ago. The fourth largest automaker in the U.S. increased its annual sales by 16.4 percent, selling 2.04 million cars in the year.
Eleven models from its five brands — Chrysler, Jeep, Ram, Dodge and Fiat — posted a sales record for the month, continuing a 57-month streak of annual sales gains.
“Our best December sales in a decade pushed our full-year sales over the 2-million unit threshold for our best annual sales since 2006,” Reid Bigland, Chrysler’s head of U.S. sales, said in a press release.