Buyers take advantage of low fuel prices and interest rates, says Andrew English

December's light vehicle sales in the US were up 11 per cent on the previous year, dragging the yearly total up to 16,531,070.

That's the third best result in history and the best since 2005. It shows what effect low interest rates, a growing economy and rock-bottom petrol prices have on car sales - for some companies at least.

US petrol prices averaged US$2.30 ($2.93) a gallon (3.8 litres) in December.

Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research, says: "These gas prices mean the average American is saving upwards of US$1200 a year against a time when they were US$3.60 a gallon."


Buyers have responded by heading into showrooms for the latest in SUV gas-guzzlers.
The top-three best-selling vehicles are full-sized pickups, Ford's F-series pickup is first, followed by the Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram. Unlike in 2013, last year's light truck sales have consistently outrun those of passenger cars - the first sedans in the top 10 are the fifth- and sixth-placed Toyota Corolla and Camry.

Apart from full-sized pickups, one of the biggest market segments is the crossover. Crossovers are the fastest growing sector, at 30 per cent and climbing.

Quick sellers last year were the sporty cars, with Ford's Mustang, Subaru's WRX and Porsche's Macan spending least time on dealers' forecourts. Kia's Elantra, Jaguar's F-type and Volvo's V60 were the slowest sellers. Of the big three, Fiat Chrysler punched through the two million sales with growth of 17 per cent, General Motors sold almost three million cars and grew by 5 per cent, and Ford sold almost 2.5 million cars, down 1 per cent on last year.

German companies also did well, with BMW, Mercedes and Audi up 5, 7 and 15 per cent respectively, although there were some losses, including Mini down 15 per cent and sales at VW Group down 10 per cent to 367,000.

Fiat-owned Jeep was another strong performer, up 41 per cent after selling almost 700,000 off-roaders, as was Maserati, up 172 per cent to almost 13,000 sales.

For Jaguar Land Rover it was a case of could-do-a-lot-better, with a modest 3 per cent increase in Land Rover sales dragged down by Jaguar's fall of 7 per cent.

The Japanese firms managed reasonably, with Toyota chasing Ford and GM with sales of almost 2.4 million, a 6 per cent increase. Nissan grew by 11 per cent to 1.4 million cars, Mazda grew 8 per cent to 305,000 and Mitsubishi more than 25 per cent to 77,600.

Honda continued its moribund growth of just 1 per cent, selling 1.54 million cars.


And what about the environment? Mandated fuel consumption reductions in the US are reducing petrol usage by about 4.5 per cent a year, which contrasts with the growing demand for full-sized pickups and crossovers. And, McAlinden says, the manufacturers are running out of ideas.

"They've tried all the tricks," he says, "from four-cylinder turbos to 10-speed transmissions and light weight, and they are still coming up short of where the fuel economy mandates will be."

At the North American International Auto Show, which began this week in Detroit, visitors are looking forward to the production version of Honda's new NSX hybrid supercar, and there will possibly be a new Ford GT.

Other new stuff includes Cadillac's CTS-V, BMW's 6-series range and a revised Chevrolet Volt. Volkswagen is unveiling a big SUV, while Tesla is unveiling a battery electric crossover.