Chrysler, Ford and General Motors reported solid December sales gains, capitalizing on consumers' migration back to pickup trucks, SUVs and crossovers — despite gas prices that spiked as much as 40 cents a gallon.
For the year, U.S. auto sales totaled 11.6 million vehicles, an 11.1 percent gain from 2009's 30-year low of 10.4 million.
Despite the improvement, 2010 was still the second-weakest year since 1982.
In all, the Detroit Three expanded their collective market share to 45.1 percent in 2010 from 44.2 percent in 2009 — thanks to a strong close. December sales were up 16.4 percent for Chrysler, 8.5 percent for General Motors and 6.8 percent for Ford.
Some others did even better, though. Sales were up 32.6 percent at Hyundai, 27.7 percent at Nissan and 21 percent at Honda. Toyota was the only major automaker to report lower December sales, with a decline of 5.5 percent.
Forecasts for 2011 sales range from 12.5 million to 13.5 million, but optimism remains cautious.
"We expect the depressed housing market and slow employment growth to be somewhat of a drag ," said Don Johnson, GM vice president of U.S. sales operations.
December may have been the month GM launched the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan sold its first battery-powered Leaf, but GM reported selling only 326 Volts, and Nissan found 19 buyers for the Leaf. By contrast, sales of many pickups and SUVs soared. For the year, truck sales were up 17.9 percent, while passenger cars gained a more modest 5 percent.
Even as pump prices reached as high as $3.40 in some areas, Dodge Ram sales nearly doubled to 23,241 in December. Sales of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee more than tripled. Chevrolet Silverado sales jumped 27.7 percent, while Ford's F-Series sales rose 13.9 percent from a year earlier. Even Toyota Tundra sales climbed 12.9 percent.
Truck sales were in the doldrums a year ago. Now the industry is benefiting from pent-up demand. Many people can no longer delay replacing old vehicles they've driven as far as they can go. The average vehicle on the road is now more than 10 years old, according to research firm R.L. Polk.
"In the pickup segment, we're dealing with buyers who just need a truck," said Bob Carter, head of the Toyota division.
Consumers are less frightened by paying $3 to $3.50 a gallon after seeing prices peak at more than $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008.
"It's no big deal," Jesse Toprak, an auto analyst with TrueCar.com in Santa Monica, Calif., said. "When gas prices have peaked in the past, the love affair with SUVs and big vehicles came back and it is far from over now."
It's not necessary to buy an electric car to reduce the nation's oil consumption. Technologies such as direct-fuel injection, turbo charging and 6-speed transmissions have boosted the efficiency of newer SUVs and crossovers.
If gas prices continue rising, a wave of new small cars introduced in coming months such as the Fiat 500 minicar, the all-new Ford Focus and the Chevrolet Sonic will help automakers. Toyota's Prius sales jumped 32.8 percent in December after several soft months. A new midsize Prius and a new plug-in version of the popular hybrid are coming soon.
Chevrolet sold 10,865 of its Cruze compact, a 25 percent improvement over year-earlier sales of the Cobalt it replaced. Ford has sold 23,273 of its Fiesta subcompact since its June debut, reaching many buyers who had not owned a Ford, especially in California, said Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of marketing and sales.