Toyota overtakes GM to become top-selling car maker in US for the first time in a century

With 2.3 million units sold in the US last year, Toyota narrowly outpaced GM’s 2.2 million

GM lost its crown to rival Toyota Motor in the US last year but the Japanese car maker said outselling GM is unlikely to be sustainable. Reuters
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For the first time since 1931, General Motors is not America’s top-selling car maker

The Detroit-based company lost its crown to Japanese rival Toyota Motor, which boosted sales 10 per cent last year despite a 28 per cent decline in the fourth quarter. With 2.3 million units sold in the US in 2021, Toyota narrowly outpaced GM’s 2.2 million.

The Japanese car maker said outselling GM is unlikely to be sustainable. “That is not our goal,” said Jack Hollis, a senior vice president in charge of US sales for Toyota.

The change at the top reflects the volatility of a year many car makers will be happy to forget. Snarled shipping lines, a shortage of semiconductors and other problems left manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand. While industry-wide sales probably rose modestly from 2020, supply constraints shattered any hope of a quick recovery from the early pandemic slump.

Car makers probably sold a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 12.5 million new vehicles in December, down 23 per cent from a year earlier, according to the average forecast of six market researchers surveyed by Bloomberg.

The extent of the problem became more clear on Tuesday as most major car makers reported US sales for the fourth quarter and full year. Ford Motor is expected to release its figures on Wednesday.

For the full year, auto sales probably came to 14.9 million vehicles, a 2.5 per cent jump from the coronavirus-stricken days of 2020, according to Cox Automotive.

The year wasn’t without its bright spots. The inventory challenges helped push some buyers to more-profitable, option-laden models, while the mainstream embrace of electric vehicles accelerated.

On Sunday, Tesla blew past Wall Street’s expectations with record quarterly global deliveries. Other car makers will be hard-pressed to match that kind of performance.

GM’s sales for the year declined 13 per cent, weighed down by a 43 per cent plunge in the final quarter. Chevy Silverado sales fell more than 30 per cent and GMC Sierra sales tumbled 21 per cent in the quarter. The auto giant was quick to blame chip constraints for its woes, saying they put a 13 per cent drag on sales.

That forced GM to be strategic about where it dedicated supplies. In a dismal quarter, sales of the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade large sport utility vehicles all rose. They are the most profitable vehicles the company sells.

Crucially for investors, GM said semiconductor supplies improved towards the end of the year, and the company forecast further improvements in 2022.

Toyota’s strong 2021 performance was buoyed by sales of sedans such as the Corolla and Camry. While the car maker’s top-selling vehicle remained the RAV4, the compact SUV’s sales actually dropped 5 per cent for the year. Sales of the Corolla and Camry rose 5 per cent and 6.6 per cent, respectively.

While final tallies for the industry are still to come, Toyota probably gained one point of market share in the fourth quarter, giving it 15.5 per cent of sales and the top spot. It’s the first time GM hasn’t been number one since 1931, when it beat Ford.

Much like Toyota, Honda Motor managed to boost sales for the year, despite a sharp drop at the end. December’s tally fell 23 per cent to 105,068 vehicles, while 2021 sales rose 8.9 per cent to 1.47 million.

Honda’s plucky CR-V compact crossover led deliveries, rising 8.3 per cent. The Civic compact and Accord midsize sedans also did well, continuing the dominance of Asian brands in the segment. Among Honda’s biggest gainers: its Ridgeline pickup and Passport midsize SUV, both of which were redesigned to showcase a more “rugged” look.

Hyundai Motor’s namesake brand was one of the big winners last year, logging a 19 per cent increase in sales from a year earlier. The Korean car maker did lose some steam in the waning months of 2021, however, with a 15 per cent drop in fourth-quarter deliveries to 152,446 vehicles. For the month of December alone, its sales fell 23 per cent.

US retail sales were the company’s highest ever, buoyed by demand for the budget-friendly Venue subcompact crossover model, which starts at less than $20,000, as well as for the Kona subcompact SUV and Tucson compact SUV.

Hyundai had comparable inventory levels as Toyota and other Japanese competitors, but availability fell late in the year, said Randy Parker, senior vice president of sales at Hyundai Motor America. The company adapted by pushing dealers to sell more cars they did not yet have.

Updated: January 05, 2022, 4:30 AM