2020 auto sales: COVID-19 spurs massive declines followed by some recovery

The global pandemic kept buyers away from showrooms and workers out of plants for most of Q2, but economic activity improved throughout the rest of the year.

It took a global pandemic and a near complete shutdown of the U.S. economy, but the automotive sales metric that analysts have been predicting for several years finally came true in 2020 – sales fell to less than 17 million units. With about 14.5 million new cars and trucks sold last year, it was the worst performance since 2012 as the global economy was still recovering from the Great Recession. The silver lining, however, was a late-year recovery with sales up in the final three months of 2020.

Tesla reaches ambitious sales goal... more or less

Automakers made massive investments in electric vehicles (EVs) in 2020, but Tesla remains the dominant manufacturer and hopes to build on that in 2021 with plants under construction in Texas and Germany. Last year, it nearly reached the ambitious 500,000-unit sales target it set before the pandemic, delivering 499,550 vehicles to customers. Whether you round up and call that an achieved goal or round down and call it a near miss, it was an impressive feat given lockdowns and the inability to produce vehicles during much of Q2.

In a down market, Tesla sales gained 36% globally, and massive increases in its stock price made CEO Elon Musk the world’s richest man in January. The success of Tesla’s stock sent investors searching for EV and autonomous vehicle (AV) startups, creating a boom for reverse mergers, providing startup funds to Rivian, Canoo, Lordstown Motors, Fisker, and several other companies.

2021 promises EV launches from several of those startups and traditional automakers such as GM and Ford.

General Motors (GM): Down 11.8%

A double-digit decline may not sound great, but the nation’s largest automaker outperformed the market and posted a 5% sales gain in the final three months of the year. Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups were up 5% for the year as GM gained market share against Ford (more on that in Ford’s numbers). Other gains included a 26% rise for the Chevy Bolt EV electric car and a 63% sales jump for the Chevy Blazer SUV.

2.55 million

Toyota: Down 11.3%

December was rough for some automakers as parts of the country returned to lockdowns, however, Toyota posted its strongest numbers of 2020 with more than a 20% increase in the final month of the year. Even more impressive, the bulk of that gain came from the Camry sedan, not the trucks and crossovers driving up sales for competitors. For the full year, cars were down 20% compared to a 6% decline for trucks.

2.11 million

Ford: Down 15.6%

Ford fell to No. 3 in the market behind Toyota, primarily because of truck timing and poor December numbers. A redesigned F-150 pickup hit the market late in the year (later than expected because of COVID-19), and the automaker simply didn’t have enough of its best-seller to meet demand. That led to market share losses to GM and lower sales overall. F-Series trucks ended the year down more than 12%.

2.04 million

Stellantis [formerly Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]: Down 17.4%

The only brand to gain in 2020 was Alfa Romeo (up 2%), the Italian, luxury, sporty nameplate that’s responsible for a tiny sliver of Stellantis’ results. Jeep, Ram, and Chrysler vehicles were down between 11% and 14% for the year but performed well in Q4 (5% losses to 5% gains). Dodge sales were down 37% in 2020, reflecting the cancellation of the Caravan minivan and poor car sales.

1.82 million

Honda: Down 16.3%

Honda depends more on cars than trucks and SUVs, and that split continued to hurt the automaker last year. Its car sales fell 22% while truck/SUV sales were down only 12%. As sales fell, Honda slowed deliveries from Japan, so 96% of its U.S. sales came from North American plants in 2020, up from 92% in 2019. CR-V crossover and Passport and Pilot SUVs sales rallied in December, nearly matching 2019’s numbers (down 99 vehicles).

1.35 million

Hyundai/Kia: Down 7.3%

The best performer of the major automakers, Hyundai/Kia passed Nissan to win the No. 6 spot for the year. Kia sold more than 46,000 new Seltos small crossovers and had a 28% increase in Telluride large SUV sales for the year. At Hyundai,  new Venue small crossover sales were up, and Palisade large SUV sales nearly tripled. Those massive SUV gains overcame weakness in cars, such as a 40% decline for the Hyundai Elantra.

1.21 million