Carmakers see slower US sales growth in 2012

DETROIT — US car sales rose 10% in 2011 but major carmakers forecast a slowdown in growth this year because of weak job growth and risks to the American economy from a slowdown in Europe.

Car sales have been a relative bright spot in the economy since late summer with cash-strapped consumers forced to buy to replace cars that have been on the road for a decade or more.

December US car sales rose 9% to hit an annualised sales rate of 13,6 million vehicles, in line with Wall Street expectations. Full-year 2011 sales totalled 12,8 million vehicles compared with 11,6 million in 2010.

Car sales are tracked as an early indicator of consumer spending, and analysts said December results were boosted by lower interest rates and a greater selection of vehicles on dealer lots.

On a full-year basis, the biggest winners were Chrysler, bouncing back from crisis under the control of Fiat SpA, and Korean powerhouse Hyundai-Kia. Both posted a 26% gain in annual sales.

The biggest losers were Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co, which both saw US sales drop 7% after the March earthquake in Japan shut down production and left dealer lots short of popular cars like the Camry and Accord.

Most major carmakers forecast 2012 sales of between 13,5 million and 14 million vehicles, implying annual growth of between 5 and 9%. Ford Motor Co offered a wider estimate it said reflected the outside chance of another economic setback.

“The momentum coming out of the fourth quarter gives us confidence that the low end of that forecast is less likely,” Ford economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick said.

Even at the most optimistic projections, the US car industry would be far short of the nearly 17 million vehicle sales it averaged in a 10-year period through 2007.

Analysts said US carmakers have slashed enough jobs and closed plants to make money even at the bottom of the industry’s bust cycle, but executives remain conservative.

“We’re still in a recession-like industry,” GM US sales chief Don Johnson told analysts on a conference call after offering the carmaker’s growth forecast for 2012.

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