2015 was biggest year for car sales in U.S. history

Source: Benjamin Hulac, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, January 8, 2016

Businesses sold more automobiles last year in the United States than ever before, surpassing the previous record of 16.57 million vehicles set in 2000.

Last year, buyers snapped up 17.5 million light-duty vehicles — cars, pickups, SUVs and vans — prompted by low gasoline prices, an improving economy and easy credit to help finance their purchases, often with zero percent interest.

Compared to 2014, sales of all brands last year finished up 5.7 percent, according to Motor Intelligence, an online industry database, while nearly every car company, with one conspicuous exception, closed out the year riding high on strong sales numbers.

Among the top brands marketed in the country, only Volkswagen AG, mired in its nitrogen oxides emissions violations scandal, saw a drop in sales. VW sales plummeted 25 percent in November and 9 percent in December, ending the year down nearly 5 percent overall (ClimateWire, Dec. 2, 2015).

Drivers paid $2.40 for a gallon of gas in 2015, about $1 less than the year before, according to the AAA motor club, and current prices are hovering around $2. About 70 percent of gas stations nationwide sell gas for less than $2 a gallon, the drivers’ club said.

Nicole Yelland, senior manager at Autotrader.com Inc., attributed some of the record-setting demand to drivers committing to new vehicles.

“There are a lot of people coming off leases,” she said by phone. “Even still, the gas consumption is very different,” she said, comparing more fuel-efficient trucks and SUVs to previous models.

Falling oil prices hit EVs hard

Automakers set records of their own in 2015 as the industry roared back, just a few years after the federal government injected money into General Motors and Chrysler. The companies each filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

“2015 marked our best sales volume in our 90-year history,” David Buckingham, chief operating officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Canadian division, said in a statement. “Ram and Jeep brand sales were strong throughout 2015, with each brand eclipsing yearly records.”

The firm’s American division had its best December in 90 years, as well.

Ford Motor Co. posted its best sales figures since 2006, selling 85,000 of its F-Series trucks for the first time in 10 years. And GM’s Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, which averages 18 to 24 mpg, was the second-biggest seller of all vehicle models in December in the United States.

Luis MacDonald, president of AutoFlex AFV, a commercial fleet management and services company in Baltimore, said the low-fuel-price environment has chipped into demand for electric cars.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” MacDonald said with a laugh, “it’s kinda hard to go alternative fuel when the price of oil is getting down to $30 a barrel.”

AutoFlex contracts with federal agencies, like the Defense Department and U.S. EPA, leasing natural gas- and ethanol-powered vehicles, as well as plug-in electric cars and EV chargers.

It’s ‘market drive,’ and DOD is in the market

MacDonald said a lot of his peers got into the electric vehicle and equipment leasing trade when oil cost more than $100 a barrel. Things have changed.

“People are buying big SUVs and driving big SUVs,” he said. “It’s all market-driven, and that’s where the market is.”

By style, SUV sales were up more than 10 percent, and crossover models ended 2015 up nearly 20 percent from 2014, while standard sedan-type vehicle sales were slightly down.

Comparing last calendar year to 2014, GM, the biggest U.S. car company, sold 5 percent more cars, while Ford and Toyota Motor Corp., the second- and third-largest car companies in the American market, respectively, each sold 5.3 percent more vehicles. Fiat, No. 4 by market share, finished 7.7 percent in the black.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Kia Motors Corp., Mazda Motor Corp. and Subaru of America Inc. each showed moderate to strong sales figures, too.

While American buyers shifted toward gas-powered cars, one big client signaled its interest in electric vehicles earlier this week.

The Department of the Navy issued a request Tuesday for 210 fully electric vehicles to be used at Navy and Marine Corps bases in California.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has made climate change and fuel efficiency priorities during his tenure (ClimateWire, Feb. 24, 2015).

“The DOD definitely supports it,” MacDonald said of fuel-saving equipment like EVs, “but they gotta go through the [General Services Administration] machine.”