DETROIT—U.S. sales for each of the five largest auto brands—Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, Honda and Nissan—declined in 2018. But the No. 6 brand, Jeep, grew enough to keep the entire industry in the black for the year.
Jeep's 17 percent surge propelled U.S. light-vehicle volume to 17.3 million, 0.6 percent more than in 2017 and the fourth-highest of all time.
All together, auto makers sold about 96,000 more vehicles than the previous year. Jeep alone gained by nearly 145,000.
"Clearly, Jeep's been killing it," said Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist at Cox Automotive. Chesbrough said Jeep, a brand synonymous with rugged utility, had the "right portfolio at the right time."
Subaru, with its all-wheel-drive wagons and crossovers, also hit it big in a year when light trucks accounted for a record 69 percent of the market. The Japanese auto maker leapfrogged Hyundai to rank seventh with a 10th consecutive year of record U.S. sales.
Going into 2018, most analysts expected the market to soften. But healthy consumer confidence, low fuel prices and higher fleet deliveries helped push sales above 17 million vehicles for the fourth year in a row.
FCA US led the way among major automakers, with both Ram and Jeep contributing to an 8.5 percent gain.
Only one other brand came close to Jeep's volume increase: Tesla, whose sales nearly quadrupled to an estimated 182,400. It, too, outgained the entire industry by itself.
Trucks gain share
U.S. light-truck sales as a whole in the U.S. grew 7.7 percent in 2018, according to the Automotive News Data Center, to 11.98 million units—a level that car sales have never reached.
Car sales plunged 12 percent and would have dipped even further but for Tesla finally achieving decent production of its Model 3 sedan in the second half of the year, Chesbrough noted.
Car sales fell to 31 percent of sales, from 36 percent a year ago and 50 percent in 2013. The 5.4 million cars sold last year represented the fewest since they had tail fins, in 1958.
Fleet sales grow
Retail demand dipped slightly in 2018, but it was buoyed by the Republican-led tax-reform law putting more money in some consumers' wallets, analysts said.
Tax reform also appeared to boost fleet sales. Sales to rental, government and commercial fleets were up 7 percent in 2018 through November, according to Cox Automotive's chief economist, Jonathan Smoke.
Fleet sales rose steadily from 2.7 million in 2013 to 3.1 million in 2016, before falling to 2.9 million in 2017 and then rising again to 3.1 million in 2018, according to Edmunds.
Sales are expected to continue to be relatively strong in early 2019, aided by cheap gasoline and low unemployment, among other positive economic factors.
However, rising interest rates and new-vehicle prices have become headwinds. Transaction prices have climbed to all-time highs, and interest rates now average about 6 percent, according to Edmunds.
Jack Hollis, group vice president and Toyota Division general manager at Toyota Motor North America, last week said he also is concerned about uncertainty surrounding trade, such as potential tariffs on foreign vehicles. Analysts have said news stories about tariffs may have caused some consumers to buy a vehicle sooner than planned, pulling ahead sales to 2018 from this year.
Most forecasts for 2019 are calling for sales in the range of 16.8 million to 17 million. Jamie Albertine, senior analyst with Consumer Edge Research, is more bearish, calling for sales of 16.5 million. Albertine said he doesn't expect a repeat of last year's fleet increase, with rental-car companies reducing inventories and commercial buyers unlikely to see a new tax benefit.
Hollis said Toyota projects 2019 sales to be in the mid-to-upper 16 million range but isn't ruling out a fifth straight year of more than 17 million units for the industry, if automakers have the right products to draw consumers into their dealerships.
"We're in the exact same position we were in last year, going into this year," Hollis said.
Auto makers adjust
FCA's strong year provides validation for former CEO Sergio Marchionne's move in 2016 to focus on Jeep and Ram while shying away from cars. Marchionne cited a "permanent shift" toward pickups and SUVs, saying fuel prices were not expected to "fundamentally change" as much as they had in the past.
Other auto makers are now making similar shifts in the hopes of stabilizing their sales results.
General Motors in November said it would end production this year of six car nameplates, including the Chevrolet Cruze, Impala and Volt.
GM's U.S. sales fell 1.6 percent to 2.95 million in 2018, with declines across all four of its brands. GMC, Buick and Cadillac were among only eight brands that posted declining light-truck sales in 2018.
GM began selling the new Cadillac XT4 and revived Chevrolet Blazer crossovers near the end of 2018. It's expected to reveal another Cadillac crossover, the XT6, on Sunday, Jan. 13, ahead of the Detroit auto show. And redesigns and freshenings of several crossover, pickup and SUV models are expected throughout 2019 and into 2020.
Ford in April said it would stop selling sedans in North America. It had planned to import a Focus Active wagon to the U.S. from China but has reversed those plans because of tariffs.
Ford's sales declined 3.5 percent in 2018, including an 18 percent plunge in car deliveries, but it sold more than 900,000 F-series pickups for the first time since 2005.
Ford's Ranger midsize pickup is slated to reach dealerships this month, followed this year by the redesigned Explorer and Escape and the new Lincoln Aviator.
Toyota Motor North America sales dipped 0.3 percent on the year, with car sales off 12 percent and light-truck deliveries up 8 percent.
American Honda Automobile Division sales slid 2.2 percent, with the Honda brand off 2.8 percent but Acura rising 2.8 percent. Acura supplanted Cadillac as the fifth-largest luxury contender, beating the GM brand by 4,232 vehicles.
Hyundai-Kia sales slipped just 0.6 percent in 2018 after a 10 percent drop the previous year, and the automaker said its light-truck mix reached an all-time high of 43 percent.
Volkswagen Group of America sales were up 2 percent, while Nissan Group sales declined 6.3 percent.