One year after losing the title it held for nearly a century as the top car seller in America, General Motors is back on top.
GM (GM) reported Wednesday US sales of 2.3 million vehicles. Strong fourth quarter sales, up 41% from a year ago, allowed it to end the year with sales up nearly 3% from the 2.2 million US vehicles it sold in 2021, when it suffered a 13% decline.
Meanwhile Toyota (TM), which had captured the top sales spot in 2021, had its full-year sales fall nearly 10% to 2.1 million, despite posting a 13% increase in fourth quarter sales.
In each of the last two years, industry-wide auto sales were limited by a shortage of parts, primarily computer chips, needed to build the cars and trucks consumers wanted. Total US new vehicle sales are expected to be down to just less than 14 million vehicles when the final sales results are reported across the industry later this week.
That would be the lowest sales total since the country was just climbing out of the Great Recession more than a decade ago. Sales bottomed out at 10.5 million in 2009, the year GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and received federal bailouts, and had only climbed back to 12.7 million by 2011, the last year the industry sales fell below 14 million.
Sales had been 17 million in 2019, the year before the pandemic upended both the economy and supply chains.
Most forecasts say the supply chain problems are getting better, and that should allow automakers to increase production in 2023. They point to the better sales that took place in the fourth quarter than earlier in the year as a proof of that, even with higher car prices and rising interest rates making it more expensive for buyers than in the past.
That in turn has led them to forecast a modest increase in sales this year to just north of 14 million vehicles once again.
But many experts caution that their forecast of increased sales depends on the US economy not falling into recession, and instead simply experiencing slower growth. And uncertainty about what will happen to the economy is making the outlook for car sales far more uncertain than in previous years, they say.
“I’ve been forecasting the car market for decades now. This next year is the most challenging,” said Charlie Chesbrough, chief economist for Cox Automotive. “Normally we have an idea which way it is headed. But this year it could be up or down.”
There are a number of factors supporting new car sales in the coming year, even if the economy stumbles. One is the fact that car rental companies have not been able to buy the supply of new cars they need in the last two years, as automakers limited the supply of cars available for lower priced fleet sales, selling all or virtually all the cars they had two consumers instead.
“Rental companies have been running at half of the purchases that they’re accustomed to,” said Ivan Drury, director of insights at Edmunds.
And Drury said if automakers start to see weakness in consumer demand, they can bring back incentives, including lower rate financing, that they haven’t had to offer in recent years when there was more demand than supply.
“The incentives recently have been virtually nothing,” he said.
So far demand is still strong, as there is pent-up demand from potential buyers who have delayed purchases because they couldn’t find the vehicle they wanted. But both Drury and Chesbrough say the higher average prices and higher interest rates are already driving buyers out of the market.
A turn in the economy, especially if historically low unemployment rates start to rise, could quickly result in lower new car sales.