Automakers Definitely Lived "Interesting Times" in 2011

By Joel Arellano | January 05, 2012
Though 2009 is reckoned to be the modern auto industry's lowest point—after all, the Detroit Three almost became the Detroit One due to bankruptcy—automotive historians will also point to 2011 as a rough period for carmakers. Mother Nature was rough in 2011, especially to the Japanese. On March 11, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake rattled the seabed off the northeast coast of Japan and generated a massive tsunami that killed thousands of people. The devastation forced Japanese automakers like Toyota and Honda to cut back on production, delay model debuts (Toyota Prius v), and look for alternative suppliers. The Japanese automakers had barely recovered when Typhoon Roke slammed the entire region—from Japan to Thailand—in September, forcing closure of several plants and reinvigorating the need for new suppliers. Interestingly, sales of domestic automakers' vehicles rose during these periods though mostly likely due to the unseasonal cuts in prices. West of Asia, the Continent uncomfortably watched the "Saab Saga" unfold as Swedish automaker Saab valiantly tried to stay solvent through a series of Chinese automaker "donors" wishing to purchase it. The automaker finally declared bankruptcy in December. It will be interesting to see if future historians will point to General Motors and its opposition to the sale to Chinese automakers as the final blow that brought down the sixty-year old company. Saab was not the only automaker to be discontinued in 2011. Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler announced in November that it was shutting down its ultra-lux Maybach brand due to low sales. The automaker plans to continue to compete against BMW-owned Rolls-Royce and Volkswagen subsidiary Bentley in 2013 with new, even more luxurious models for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Finally, the auto industry in the Americas was relatively quiet compared to the action overseas. Most of the news focused on specific car models: Americans not electrified by the Nissan Leaf; Honda, stung by Consumer Reports' non-recommendation of its Civic subcompact, vowed to do better; Toyota silenced critics with its all-new 2012 Camry; and General Motors extinguished stories on its Chevrolet Volt battery fires. (Rare case of consumer intelligence/common sense over tabloids.) So, sale-wise, who were the major winners and losers (if any) in 2011? Winners:
  • Chrysler came from near death to ahead of the pack largely pulled by its heavily refreshed Jeep brand.
  • New models, from stalwart favorites like the Accent and Elantra, and brand new ones (Veloster) helped keep sales high for Hyundai while frustrating rivals who had been blinded by the Korean super duo (Hyundai and Kia).
  • Volkswagen found sales with the larger, more consumer-oriented Jetta and Passat sedans, much to the chagrin of car enthusiasts everywhere. However, they were able to step out of their (imaginary) autobahns long enough to vote the VW Passat as Motor Trend's Car of the Year and a finalist for North American Car of the Year.
  • Ford saw large sales gains in 2011 driven not only from new products (Explorer, Fiesta) but, interestingly, soon-to-be discontinued/replaced as well (Escape, Ranger). Also, the automaker was the only domestic automaker to achieve sales growth in the usually import-happy state of California for three years in a row.
  • New products again drove General Motors sales with consumers snatching up the all-new Buick Regal and Chevrolet Cruze. Interestingly, GMC contributed to the overall strong year-end sales from the commercial side with its Savana van.
  • No surprise that Nissan saw drop in sales in 2011 due to all the issues in Japan (see above). What we find really perplexing, though, is that all Infiniti models saw a drop in overall sales compared to last year's figures except the humongous Infiniti QX luxury SUV.
  • Japan's largest automaker Toyota saw sales flat out overall in 2011, which is not bad considering all the hard hits the automaker has been suffering for the past three years. But like Nissan's Infiniti brand, Toyota saw sales all in the negative across its Lexus lineup.
  • Honda, like its Japanese rivals, saw falling sales due to the weather back home.
Sources: BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo