Motown is back...
The most popular auto brands in the U.S. are Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota, in that order. Toyota - it of the 12.4 million recalled vehicles since 2009 - having slipped to third place last year.
GM sells more vehicles in North America than any automaker (Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, GMC). And Ford, even without the now-defunct Mercury brand, has displaced Toyota (Toyota, Lexus) for the #2 spot.
The Ford and Toyota brands are now evenly matched in favorable consumer regard, according to Consumer Reports, a long trip back from the "Rusty Ford" era of the 1970s. Ford has leapt 35 points in the CR survey, and Toyota has plunged 46 points, to a "statistical dead heat" of 144 and 147, respectively. And yes, both Ford and Toyota are way out ahead of the likes of BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and other costlier brands on "factors that consumers say matter most: safety, quality and value," CR reports.
Ford and Chrysler gained market share in 2010 while GM slipped. But for GM, that's the inevitable result of shedding half its brands, the low-volume Pontiac, Saturn, Saab and Hummer. Just the same, GM's robust 2010 profit will be its first full-year profit since 2004. GM is now a viable enterprise, because it finally has disciplined itself to sell only vehicles it is certain to profit from. That's after decades of keeping an excess of factories running, and dumping the excess production on the unprofitable fleet and rental markets. That practice also depressed resale values - a further inhibitor of buyer interest in GM products. An ever-so-brief stay in bankruptcy in 2009 has not only rescued GM but set it up to become one of the world's most sustainably profitable automakers, a status only the likes of Toyota, Honda and BMW were long thought capable of.
Ford will report a staggering 2010 pre-profit of about $8 billion tomorrow, its biggest profit in a decade. That's a tripling in profit since 2009, despite a modest 19% increase in unit sales, which spells a huge increase in profit per vehicle sold. Again, Ford and its Detroit peers are learning how to make money in good times and bad, rather than counting on sporadic fat profits at the top of the cycle and then wallowing in losses during the inevitable long industry slumps.
Ford's F-Series pickup (shown left) remains the best-selling vehicle of any kind in America, posting a stunning 28% gain last year. (The F-Series has had U.S. truck leadership for 34 years in a row.)
GM's restyled Camaro, reintroduced in 2009 after a seven-year haitus, has overtaken Ford's signature Mustang. This is a sidelines contest, muscle cars being a small part of the market. But that each vehicle could post healthy sales -Camaro sales were up 32% last year, Mustang sales gained 11% in yet another weak year for overall North American vehicle sales - is a triumph. Particularly for the Camaro, which was absent from the market for so long.
The Chev Camaro edged out Ford's Mustang in muscle-car leadership in 2010. (2011 models shown.)
I'm torn on the Camaro-Mustang rivalry, which dates from the 1960s. I've long been rooting for Ford as the world's best-run automaker, but the head-turning Camaro is built by, excuse me, the world's most skilled automakers, in Oshawa, Ont. (The Harbor and J.D. Power surveys will bear me out on GM Oshawa's industry-leading productivity and quality performance, respectively.)
Oh, and the Chev Volt hybrid that GM has so much riding on - and debuts in showrooms later this year - has won three major Car of the Year awards. The challenge here will be Volt's $41,000 (U.S.) base price, far more moolah than consumer are accustomed to handing over for a Chev-branded econobox. Obama's $7,500 tax rebate should help. The trick for GM is to vastly lower its production costs - and selling price - on the Volt before the tax rebate program expires.
Asian vehicles alone still command 46.3% of the U.S. market. That would be Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai. (The surging Hyundai is now the world's fourth-largest automaker.) So there's lots of ground yet for Detroit to regain. Which is great news for North American-based automakers, since they've learned how to make money on today's low, recession-era volumes, and are poised for even bigger profits as the North American economy recovers.
The numbers finally are heading in the right direction for the Motor City, after decades of mismanagement, in a turnaround whose speed and strength few would have imagined possible as recently as the late 2000s.
Photos: Company handouts.