With the December reports tallied, the U.S. auto industry ended 2019 with 17.1 million vehicles sold, falling short of the post-recession boom years as buying habits continue to swing in favor of profitable trucks and SUVs.
With sales slowing late in Q4 2019 (and December especially, in which industry volumes dipped more than 5 percent from the year prior), analysts are projecting a tepid start to 2020. Based on December's numbers, the seasonally adjusted, annualized rate (SAAR) has dipped below 17 million for the new year — short of 2019's total and slightly lower than analysts originally projected.
The truck battle continued to heat up last year, and Autoblog favorite Ram had yet another spectacular run, closing 2019 ahead of rival Chevrolet in the full-size segment with 633,694 of its Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 models sold. General Motors will quickly (and accurately) point out that the combined sales of its twin pickups (Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra) are still well ahead of Ram's at nearly 808,000, but GM has slipped from the years when its big pickups together eclipsed the Ford F-Series in combined volume.
Ram's ascendancy from afterthought to serious competitor has been swift, yet Ford's dominance is a strong as ever. The Blue Oval moved 896,526 F-Series pickups in 2019, which was a drop of 1.4% from 2018. GM's only good news came from growth in light-duty Sierra sales and the addition of approximately 5,000 "medium-duty" Silverado sales.
2019 was also a big year for the midsize pickup segment. The returns of the Ford Ranger and Jeep Gladiator nameplates have already proven impactful, and while the Toyota Tacoma's volume throne (248,801 sold) remains unchallenged for the time being, it's possible that increased competition will eventually erode its lead. In its first year, Ford sold more than half as many Rangers (89,571) as GM sold Colorados and Canyons combined (155,169). Jeep sold only 40,000 Gladiators, but as capable as it is, the Wrangler-based trucklet is more of a premium toy for Jeep fans than a workhorse pickup.
The continued migration away from small, two- and four-door cars to trucks and SUVs helped offset reduced sales volumes since the latter offer bigger profit margins for automakers. At the same time, some OEMs were forced to offer heavy incentives to maintain sales going into the fourth quarter. In some cases, these discounts reached record highs — alongside climbing transaction prices.
While some automakers — mostly on the smaller side — came out ahead in volume in 2019, most mainstream manufacturers saw sales stagnate or slow yet again as the U.S. auto industry appears to be settling into a new normal. Sales peaked at 17.5 million in 2016 and have been settling since.