Jan 5, 2021 - Economy

Automakers' topsy-turvy year ends on a high note

Illustration of top down car on dollar skid marks

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Automakers sold an estimated 14.5 million vehicles in 2020 — down about 15% from a year earlier and the lowest level since 2012 — as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the industry's long winning streak.

Why it matters: Ordinarily, carmakers would be disappointed by the final sales figures, but given 2020's unprecedented challenges, most are relieved that demand bounced back in the second half, fueling optimism for fat year-end profits and continued growth in 2021.

Details: Automakers saw strong demand for SUVs and pickups, their most profitable vehicles, which were in short supply after months-long factory shutdowns early in the pandemic.

  • Tight inventories left little bargaining room for consumers, so prices remained high, padding profits.
  • GM and Toyota outperformed the industry, with sales down a little over 11% for the year. Nissan sales fell 33% for the year.
  • IHS Markit expects 2021 sales to reach 16 million units, up about 10%.

What to watch: Automakers will report fourth-quarter and year-end financial results in the coming weeks.

  • Yes, but: Investors have shown little enthusiasm for legacy automakers, despite strong results. Instead, they're infatuated with unproven electric vehicle startups, hoping to find the next Tesla.

Editor's note: Not all automakers have reported their year-end figures.

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