Car sales gain for 15th-consecutive quarter, up 25% in 2012

A better economy, easier-to-find credit and higher trade-in values helped new-car sales increase for the 15th-consecutive quarter, the latest evidence of improving consumer confidence in California.

Fourth-quarter accelerated 22% compared to a year ago, and annual registrations reached 1.6 million vehicles, a 25.3% increase vs. 2011, according to the California New Car Dealers Association in Sacramento. Basically, registrations and sales are the same, since buyers must register their vehicles.

New-car sales are critical to the California economy, especially since cash-strapped state and local government depend heavily on sales-tax revenue. However, industry analysts warn the double-digit gains of the past few years are likely over, predicting a more modest 8.2% increase to 1.75 million vehicles in 2013.

But automakers should celebrate a rather impressive 2012.

Korean automaker Kia enjoyed the biggest gain last year, selling 59,557 vehicles – up 53.3%, the best performance among the 15 top-selling brands. Subaru followed with a 44.2% increase, while Toyota/Scion at 39.1% and Volkswagen at 37.9% finished in third and fourth place, respectively.

A Honda dealership in the auto mall in Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento.
A Honda dealership in the auto mall in Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento.

American, European, Japanese and Korean manufacturers reported at least 17% increases in 2012, according to the state trade association. Korean automakers – think Hyundai and Kia – led the race at 35%, followed by Japanese manufacturers at 30.3%. American automakers enjoyed a 17.6% boost in sales from a year ago.

Toyota remained the state’s best-selling brand last year with 296,141 vehicles compared to the 212,888 in 2011. Honda finished at No. 2, with 181,382 vehicles, a 30.2% gain, while Ford finished in third place with 176,408 vehicles, a 13.2% increase. Chevrolet was a distant fourth with 133,445 cars and trucks sold, but a still solid 12.5% improvement from 2011.

Chrysler (78.8%), Lexus (31.0%) and Acura (29.2%) also reported good sales volume in 2012. But the three brands are not listed among the 15 best-selling brands in the state.

Only four automakers went in reverse last year, paced by Mitsubishi and Lincoln with declines of 18.6% and 13.7%, respectively. Volvo and Jaguar also slid in 2012.

Higher gas prices and thinner pocketbooks played a major role in the best-selling model race, with 60,688 hybrid Toyota Priuses selling in 2012, followed close behind by second-place finisher Honda Civic with 57,124 vehicles. Toyota sold 50,250 Camrys, a previous top-seller, followed by the Honda Accord at 49,420 for third and fourth place, respectively.

The Ford F-150 remains the best-selling full-size pickup – and one of the best-performing models overall – in the state, with 25,434 hitting the street, about 7,400 more than the Chevrolet Silverado. The Dodge Ram finished in third with 11,299 units.

Car-crazy California easily outpaced new-car sales in the rest of the nation, which had a 13.4% increase in 2012.