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2009 Worst Year for Light Vehicle Sales Since 1970

by Bill Cawthon on

The year just ended is one most car companies would just as soon forget. By the time the year-end sales drives had come to an end, the automakers’ combined sales totaled 10,429,553 cars and light trucks, the lowest total in 39 years. And in 1970, AMC. Chrysler, Ford and GM owned 85.1% of that market. Chrysler’s share was 14.92 percent. In 2009, the Detroit brands claimed just 44.88% of the total. In other words, in 1970, 8,690,000 sales went to American-badged vehicles; in 2009, that number was 4,610,000 – over four million fewer.

Still, December marked an improvement over much of the year. Almost all automakers reported improved sales compared to November 2009 and many beat their numbers from December 2008. The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate (SAAR) for December was 11.25 million light vehicle sales, squeaking past July as the second-highest SAAR for the year. Considering that both July and August benefitted from the government’s “Cash for Clunkers” rebate program, December’s rate is actually pretty encouraging. After a precipitous drop in September, when the rebates ran out, the rate has increased each month and is now almost 900,000 sales higher than last December.

Chrysler finished the year with the biggest year-over-year deficit of the major automakers but did better than General Motors in December. Dodge came in 24.4% ahead of last December, thanks to strong showings from the Caravan and Journey, which continues to outsell the Ford Flex. The Chrysler Sebring, 300, Dodge Avenger and Caliber were also well into positive territory in December, thanks to robust fleet sales that some sources say account for as much as half the total. Chrysler did lose market share in 2009, dropping from 11% of the light vehicle market to 8.9 percent but GM gave up an even bigger piece, dropping from 22.3% to 19.9% for the year.

Chrysler’s big challenge going forward is keeping sales up until fresh product can be rolled out. It will be educational to watch how Olivier Francois’ new marketing strategies are implemented and received. Dealers are already complaining the ads don’t show the cars or sell the deal but the reality is that Chrysler has to get or keep its vehicles on buyers’ minds, a tough job when the product is several years old, the deals are the same as they were last month and marketing resources are very limited.

General Motors had a tough month in December as orphan brand sales dragged its results down. Sales at the General were off 5.7% compared to last December and its 29.9% shortfall is only slightly less dramatic than the 35.9% tumble at Chrysler. The General’s pride also took a hit as annual sales of the Toyota Camry surpassed those of the Silverado pickup for the first time and the Ford Fusion replaced the Chevy Impala as the best-selling American-badged car. The new Camaro came on strong but couldn’t quite catch the Mustang in the pony car race.

GM executives pointed out that sales of its four core brands (Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC) were actually ahead of last year and it’s true that sales of just those four nameplates would have been enough to keep GM in the top spot for another year. The flaw in that argument is the future sales that might have gone to Pontiac and Saturn. The chances are good, bordering on certain, that GM will lose the vast majority of Saturn customers and might lose the majority of Pontiac buyers. Defections to Ford or Toyota could be enough to knock GM out of the No. 1 position it has held so long.

Not surprisingly, Ford came out the best of the Detroit automakers. December sales rocketed up 32.8 percent, propelled by a nearly 40% increase in passenger car sales, once again thanks to renewed buying from fleet customers. The gang from Dearborn finished the year just 15.3% behind 2008 and picked up another 1.1% of market share on the way. The F-Series pickup completed its 28th year as America’s best-selling vehicle and has become the best-selling American vehicle in history. It’s now been 33 years since another pickup outsold the Ford.

While December was good, bringing a 32.3% improvement in monthly sales, 2009 was a year of reckoning for Toyota. Annual sales fell 20.2% as the Japanese juggernaut was stymied by the same forces that plagued the rest of the industry with the additional complication that the fire seemed to have gone out in its once-hot Scion line. Sales of every Toyota vehicle, except the RAV4 and Lexus RX, failed to meet last year’s levels. Toyota did pick up about .2% of market share and remained America’s favorite vehicle brand.

Honda also picked up about 0.2% of market share last year as a good December with a 24.5% sales increase cut the year’s deficit to 19.46 percent. The Odyssey topped the minivan charts for the year and was the only minivan to top 100,000 sales in 2009. The Accord, usually the No. 2 best-selling car, was dropped to No. 3 by the Toyota Corolla.

Nissan rounded out the Big Six with an 18.2% increase over December 2008 which left it about 19.1 percent in the hole for the year. The Altima took the fifth spot in passenger car sales, meaning all five of the top finishers were Japanese brands this year.

Going entirely against the grain, Subaru set a new annual sales record in 2009 with numbers that were 15.43% ahead of 2008. Subaru was joined in the winners column by Hyundai and Kia, the only other major automakers to best their 2008 records.

Mazda is still trying to put the “zoom-zoom” back in sales; down 21.3 on the year. Rounding out he Asian automakers, Mitsubishi sales ended the year down 44.5% and Suzuki sales plunged 54.5 percent.

The European brands increased their share of the U.S. market. Volkswagen finished the year with a 4.3% shortfall. BMW missed its mark by 21.1% and Mercedes-Benz stumbled about 15.3 percent. Both BMW’s Mini and Daimler’s Smart had bad years with sales cut nearly in half.

Automakers and industry watchers are cautiously optimistic about 2010 with some even talking about a 14-million-sale year. But unless the economy improves enough to see real job creation, the reality is probably more in the neighborhood of 11.5 million to 12 million sales, an improvement over 2009, but still millions short of the records set in the early years of the 21st Century.

2009’s Top 20 Best-Selling Light Vehicles
1. Ford F Series – 413,625
2. Toyota Camry – 356,824
3. Chevrolet Silverado – 316,544
4. Toyota Corolla – 296,874
5. Honda Accord – 287,492
6. Honda Civic – 259,722
7. Nissan Altima – 203,568
8. Honda CR-V – 191,214
9. Ford Fusion – 180,671
10. Ram Pickup – 177,268
11. Ford Escape – 173,044
12. Chevrolet Impala – 165,565
13. Chevrolet Malibu – 161,568
14. Ford Focus – 160,433
15. Toyota RAV4 – 149,088
16. Toyota Prius – 139,682
17. GMC Sierra – 111,842
18. Toyota Tacoma – 111,824
19. Honda Odyssey – 100,133
20. Lexus RX – 93,379

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.

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