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January sales recap

by Bill Cawthon on

January, though no barn-burner, was an improvement over the same period last year. Light vehicle sales were up 6.3 percent to 698,346 units, producing a seasonally adjusted annualized sales rate of 10.78 million units, over a million sales better than January 2009’s 9.62 million. This raises hopes that this year will see between 11 million and 12 million sales by the time December rolls around again.

Chrysler missed its mark again, coming in about 8.1% short of its sales last January. It’s likely fleet sales accounted for a chunk of the improvement in turns of the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger and two of the three Belvidere triplets, the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass, also posted better numbers. More Town & Country and Caravan minivans left dealer lots last month, though the Honda Odyssey still hung onto the minivan crown by a small margin. Inventories remained manageable, down from December but representing a somewhat longer supply, up to 73 days from 58 in December. One very bright spot for Chrysler: incentive spending was slashed, leaving Chrysler the least generous of the Detroit Three when it came to cash on the hood.

The sales shortfall was enough to allow Nissan to take over the fifth place, leaving Chrysler last among the six major automakers. Sales of the Ram dropped more than any full-size pickup except the Toyota Tundra, and the Ram dropped off the overall top ten list for the first time in quite a while, falling to No. 14 in the sales rankings.

General Motors reported improved sales, up 14.1% from January 2009, and said sales of its core brands (Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC) increased by 29.8 percent. Based on the General’s press statements, non-retail (i.e., fleet) sales made up 29.4% of the total so it still isn’t clear how many former Pontiac and Saturn customers GM has been able to retain.

Chevrolet regained bragging rights as America’s favorite brand of light vehicle. It was followed by Ford as Toyota tumbled to third place. The Silverado reclaimed its time-honored second place in overall sales and the Chevy Malibu was the best-selling American-badged car and the new Camaro outsold the Mustang by 624 units.

Ford sales jumped nearly 25% in January, once again thanks to rental companies replenishing their fleets. Ford sales analyst George Pipas said actual retail sales dropped five percent. The F-series began another year as the best-selling light vehicle in the land. The Fusion continued to sell briskly, but was surpassed by both the Chevy Malibu and Chevy Cobalt.

January was a good month not to be Toyota. The awkwardly handled massvie recall of millions of its top vehicle lines cost the company an estimated 20,000 sales. Toyota missed its January numbers by 15.8% and gave up 3.7 points of market share, the largest decline of any automaker. The Camry, which has been America’s best-selling car for years and was the second-best-selling vehicle in 2009, tumbled to seventh on the list, outsold by the Accord, Nissan Altima, Corolla and Chevy Malibu. Tundra sales slumped more than 40 percent. It may well be that the full impact of Toyota’s mega-blooper won’t be seen until February sales are reported.

Honda, which had its own recall troubles with the Fit, ended January in the red and sales slipped five percent. Accord sales improved 25.2% for the month, enough to make it the best-selling passenger car so far this year, and Civic sales rose 3.5 percent.

Nissan had a good month, despite stumbles from the Rogue and Murano. Altima sales were way up and it was the second-best-selling car in the U.S. in January. Most of Nissan’s car lines saw better sales as did the company’s big Titan and Armada trucks. Sales of the compact Frontier pickup climbed 22 percent.

Subaru’s winning streak continued, though it didn’t set a record this month. Subie sales were up 28% with record months from the Outback and Legacy overcoming declines in sales of the Impreza and Forester.

Mazada posted a third consecutive sales improvement with double-digit gains from the Mazda5, Mazda6 and CX-7. Mitsubishi sales fell 11.8% to 4,178 sales for the month. Suzuki cratered again in January with a 44.2% plunge as the company tries to find its way out of the vacuum left by the discontinued Daewoo cars.

Both Korean brands were in the black at the end of January, though in Kia’s case, it was by the skin of their teeth. Kia beat its year-ago volume by 27 sales for a 0.1% gain. Hyundai’s margin was a more generous 24.4 percent.

With the exception of Saab and Jaguar, all the the European brands enjoyed a good month. Big winner was Volkswagen which has announced its intention of surpassing Toyota as the world’s largest automaker. VW came in 40.1% ahead of its January 2009 results and Audi sales jumped 37.9 percent. Even sales of the New Beetle were up as VW started the year as the best-selling European brand in America.

Mercedes-Benz got a hefty 41.1% boost in January with strong sales of the new E-Class. The M-Class and GLK-Class crossovers also made major contributions to the effort which let Mercedes pass BMW and come within 790 sales of segment leader Lexus in the premium market. The news wasn’t quite as good for Daimler’s Smart car: just 278 were sold in January.

Despite dropping to third in the luxury rankings, BMW enjoyed a 7.6% sales boost and saw sales of the Mini, which had been lagging, rise 7.9 percent.

Land Rover sold 1,958 vehicles last month, good for a 4.4% improvement, while stablemate Jaguar fell 19.2% with a total of 631 sales.

January’s results were encouraging after the crash last year but then 2009 will probably become the reference bad year for a decade or more to come.

Thanks in large part to the rental car companies, Detroit managed to grab a larger piece of the pie last month, claiming 45.8% of light vehicle sales. That’s up from 43.1% in January 2009. Chrysler gave up 1.3 points of market share, ending the month with 8.2% of sales. Ironically, that is the same percentage Nissan had last January.

The leaders of the Japanese Juggernaut, Toyota and Honda, lost a combined 4.8% of the market, something that would have been almost unimaginable just a year ago. It remains to be seen how much damage has been done to Toyota’s reputation and how that will translate into lost sales. “Unintended acceleration,” even though it was never proven to be a flaw in the automobile, almost completely destroyed Audi in the U.S. Toyota is now being blamed for 19 fatalities in connection with the faulty pedal and the way the issue has been handled to date hasn’t won the company any brownie points.

Passenger cars continue to be the story; they picked up another 4.1% of the market compared to last January and that continues to be a problem for Chrysler. A bigger problem seems to be the Ram pickup. The Ram has picked up a shelf’s worth of awards and lots of praise from the automotive press but is still having trouble getting any traction in the marketplace.

February sales should prove interesting. Unless the government decides to reinstitute tax credits, sales could be very soft; Detroit can’t count on fleet buyers to stock up every month and more than one source said actual retail sales were below expectations. The truth is that, given the quality of modern vehicles, consumers generally can defer replacements and credit challenges and general uncertainty about the economy could very well keep many potential customers on the sidelines. On the other hand, the rapid sell-through of creations like the Jeep Islander shows there is still interest in Chrysler products. Olivier Francois certainly has his work cut out for him keeping that interest alive and growing.

January’s Top 20
1. Ford F-Series – 27,630
2. Chevrolet Silverado – 22,772
3. Honda Accord – 19,022SAD
4. Nissan Altima – 18,636
5. Toyota Corolla – 17,121
6. Chevrolet Malibu – 16,439
7. Toyota Camry – 15,792
8. Honda Civic – 14,693
9. Chevrolet Cobalt – 12,962
10. Ford Fusion – 12,179
11. Chevrolet Impala – 10,939
12. Ford Escape – 10,753
13. Ford Focus – 10,389
14. Ram Pickup – 9,957
15. Honda CR-V – 9,672
16. Chevrolet Equinox – 9,513
17. Toyota RAV4 – 7,894
18. Kia Sorento – 7,871
19. GMC Sierra – 7,271
20. Hyundai Santa Fe – 7,204

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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