2020 sales wrap-up: The good and the bad of an ugly year

Byron Hurd
·7 min read



Automakers are awakening from their holiday slumbers with full-year sales data for 2020. It goes without saying that the coronavirus pandemic had a massive impact on global auto sales last year, but just about every player in the market reported improvement in the second half of what amounted to a tumultuous and unpredictable 12 months. 

Sales of new vehicles in the U.S. fell 14.6% last year, but the second-half rebound from the coronavirus-related plunge in the spring kindled optimism for a recovery in the coming year.

Automakers on Tuesday reported selling 14.57 million new vehicles for the year, a far cry from the five previous years with sales over 17 million. But the 2020 performance was better than most forecasters had expected when the pandemic forced auto factories and many dealerships to shut down in April and May.

Results at a glance, with details to follow:

  • GM's sales were down 11.9% for the year.

  • Toyota sales were off 11.4%.

  • Ford fell 15.6%.

  • Fiat Chrysler was off 17.4%.

  • Struggling Nissan reported sales down 33.2% for the year.

  • Honda fell 16.3%.

  • Hyundai sales dropped 10%.

  • Volkswagen Group was down 12.8%.

  • Subaru sales were off 12.6%.

  • Tesla (up 20.3%), Volvo (up 1.8%) and Mazda (up 0.2%) bucked trends

For the year, sales of fully electric vehicles rose 9.9%, according to Autodata Corp.

Last spring, unemployment skyrocketed. Auto sales tumbled 34% in the first half of the year as factories closed for about two months, cutting off the supply of new vehicles. But as the summer came, people with jobs started splurging on loaded-out cars, trucks and SUVs late in the year. That and low interest rates drove sales up and pushed the average auto sales price to a record of just over $38,000 in December, according to J.D. Power.

Ford's F-Series pickups remained the nation's top-selling vehicle with 787,422 sales, down 12.2%. The Chevrolet Silverado was second at 586,675, up 2.8%. The Silverado ousted Fiat Chrysler's Ram pickup from the No. 2 slot. The Ram had passed the Silverado in 2019.

Toyota's RAV4 was the top-selling SUV at 430,387 in sales, while the Toyota Camry was the most popular car with 294,348 in sales.

SUVs in the majority

"Along with being remembered for how the auto industry demonstrated resiliency against economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — though down significantly, the year is closing better than expected given conditions earlier in the year — this looks to be the year when sales of utility vehicles reached 50% market share, across all size segments, compared with 48% in 2019," said IHS Markit automotive analyst Stephanie Brinley.

"Pickup truck sales remained strong over the course of the year, and are expected to end 2020 at about 20% share of total light vehicle sales, compared with 18.1% in 2019. There were also a number of new products contributing to the expansions. Though Jeep Gladiator and Ford Ranger joined the midsize pickup truck segment in 2019, 2020 saw impact of a full year of availability. As with pickup trucks, share growth is in part on new entries and increased consumer choice. In 2020, Buick, Chevrolet, Kia, Genesis, Hyundai, and Toyota were among brands which added to the number of utility vehicles available in showrooms. IHS Markit forecasts that there remains opportunity for utility vehicles to increase share even further in 2021, reaching about 52% of total US light-vehicle sales, and that pickup trucks will hold about 20% share into 2021," Brinley said.

Breakdowns

Speaking of trucks, GM reported a nearly 5% improvement in the 4th quarter compared to 2019, but even that wasn't enough to overcome its full-year slide. Since GM only reports sales quarterly, there is limited granularity to its figures, but it's no secret that the bulk of GM's 11.8-percent drop in volume came largely in the first two quarters. Transitioning to production of the new Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade also cost GM some sales, as all three showed signs of strength in the 4th quarter despite slumping the rest of the year. Highlights for 2020 include the Chevy Bolt (up 26.4%), the Blazer (up 62.8%) and virtually every truck the company sells under either the Chevy or GMC banners, though the Silverado 1500 series actually fell short of its 2019 volume; GMC's Sierra variants, however, were up across the board.

FCA took an even bigger full-year beating, finishing down 17% overall. Dodge and Jeep volumes dropped more than 100,000 units, with Ram not far behind (down more than 75,000). Only Alfa Romeo finished up compared to 2019. Yes, really; we understand if you need a minute. We went through FCA's individual model results in search of good news and found very little. Gladiator was up for the year, but only because it was barely sold in 2019 at all. Challenger, Pacifica, Giulia and Stelvio sales were all up in Q4; of those, only the Stelvio was in the red for the full year. Ponder that. FCA finished the year with just over 1.8 million units sold. 

Ford fell in line with the rest of the big volume players. F-Series sales alone slid more than 12%, finishing the year under 800,000 units. Company-wide, Ford sales fell more than 15% to 2,044,744 units sold, with most of the drop-offs coming from mainstream models. Lincoln was only down just over 6% for the year, while the core Ford brand was down more than 16%. 

Over at Toyota, December's rising tide lifted virtually every boat. Not a single crossover, SUV or truck with a Toyota badge on it performed worse than it did in the same month of 2019. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the company's two- and four-doors. The discontinued Yaris and 86 joined the very-not-discontinued Prius in its ongoing slump, and the UX, RC, GS and LS managed to spoil an otherwise excellent month for Lexus. Overall, Toyota managed to hold on to just a 6.4% decline for the full year, falling just shy of 1.5 million units sold overall -- a bar it cleared in 2019.

It should come as no surprise that Hyundai's 2020 results were closely tied to the emergence of its newer crossovers. The Palisade was far and away its biggest success story, with nearly 83,000 sold for the year. Near the opposite end of the spectrum, the subcompact Kona was also in the black, moving more than 76,000 units. Slumping Elantra, Accent and Santa Fe sales kept the company down 2.0% for the year despite help from the new Venue. Hyundai's total volume for the year was just over 622,000 vehicles. 

“We feel like there's light at the end of the tunnel,” said Randy Parker, vice president of sales for Hyundai Motor America. “I think it's going to be a solid year.”

But Parker said he's still cautious, with hospitals overflowing in California and cases rising in other states. “It's far from over,” he said. “We can't afford to let our guard down at this point.”

Volkswagen's U.S. sales have rebounded nicely since its post-Dieselgate lows, but 2020 was no kinder to the volume German manufacturer than it was to anybody else. VW finished down 10% overall in total volume for the year despite positive results for the Arteon, Passat, Golf and the Atlas family. Drops in Jetta, Tiguan, and base Atlas sales offset the added volume of the new Atlas Cross Sport variant. In total, VW sold just under 326,000 cars in the U.S. last year. 

Mazda's results offered a bit more hope. The small automaker managed an overall flat 2020 performance (up 0.2%!) despite a somewhat weak December. The company finished the year with just a hair shy of 280,000 vehicles sold in the U.S., with more than half of that volume is coming from the CX-5, which remains a relatively strong seller despite a bit of a slowdown in 2020. The only existing nameplates to improve last year were the Miata (up 13.6%) and the CX-9 (up 2.9%). The company's new CX-30 crossover is already making its mark as well, making up for poor showings by the aging CX-3, the Mazda3 and Mazda6.

Volvo Car USA sold 14,244 cars in December, up 15.2% over December 2019. It racked up seven consecutive months of year-over-year growth. Volvo finished up 1.8% over last year, with 110,129 cars sold. 

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.