The U.S. auto industry, a key contributor to the state and area economies, completed a robust recovery Thursday with the release of strong December and year-end sales figures.
Driven by low interest rates, improving consumer confidence and some attractive new cars, U.S. auto sales are expected to total 14.5 million in 2012, 13 percent better than 2011. That's a five-year high, although not quite a return to the boom times of 2005, when sales hit 17 million.
Still, sales are 40 percent higher than they were at the depths of the recession in 2009.
Auto sales fuel the employment thousands of Ohioans in all corners of the state. Extensive Honda operations in west-central Ohio and a DMAX truck-engine plant in Moraine are among multiple employers in the region that are tied to the industry. And sales taxes generated by auto sales also are pivotal for state and county governments in Ohio and elsewhere.
Sales at Honda -- which directly employs more than 13,000 in its Ohio operations -- rose 24 percent for the year. Toyota, which like Honda has recovered from an earthquake and tsunami in Japan that hindered the output at its factories , said sales jumped 27 percent in 2012.
Nissan and Infiniti sales were up nearly 10 percent as the Nissan brand topped 1 million in annual sales for the first time. Hyundai/Kia sales rose 11 percent.
Volkswagen led all major automakers with sales rising 35 percent.
Chrysler, the smallest of the Detroit-based carmakers, had the best year among U.S. companies. Its sales jumped 21 percent for the year and 10 percent in December. Full-year sales at Ford rose 5 percent, while sales of General Motors cars and trucks climbed 3.7 percent.
J.B. Davis, general sales manager of Dave Dennis Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in Beavercreek, said Chrysler offered some new models and made improvements to existing models in 2012, and car buyers reacted enthusiastically to the changes.
The new Dodge Dart is competing effectively in the small-car market, and new gas-saving transmissions boosted Chrysler's mid-sized and full-sized models' appeal, Davis said.
The Beavercreek dealership boosted its sales 10 to 12 percent in 2012, while smaller-volume dealers across the country reported larger percentage sales increases, Davis said.
Terry Tobey, owner and president of Key Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in Xenia, said his dealership's sales jumped 15.9 percent in 2012, prompted in part by Jeep products that have been "hotter than a firecracker" and by overall strength across Chrysler's vehicles.
"I'm about to celebrate my 37th year here at Key, and this product line is as strong as I've ever seen," Tobey said.
Archie Teverbaugh, general manager of Bill Marine Honda in Springfield, said strong customer interest in the Honda Civic and the CR-V small SUV helped drive sales at his dealership. The Honda vehicle lineup's high gas mileage and traditionally strong resale value are selling points, and the manufacturer offered attractive lease terms late in the year for the Civic, Teverbaugh said.
Roosevelt Robinson III, president of Middletown Ford, said his dealership's sales benefitted from consumer interest in the Fusion and the Escape compact crossover, and from the product launch of the C-Max hybrid vehicle. Robinson said he believes Ohio's economic recovery is ahead of the nation's and will help drive even stronger sales in 2013.
GM executives said the company has the oldest model lineup in the industry, yet it still posted a sales increase and commanded high prices for its cars and trucks. The company plans to refurbish 70 percent of its North American models in the next 18 months and expects to boost sales this year.
GM North American President Mark Reuss said the company won't give away cars and trucks with discounts like it has in the past, especially when it's in the midst of its biggest product update ever. "Give us 18 months and you're going to see the whole portfolio turned," Reuss said.