Big year-end holiday sales in December helped all automakers. But the industry's sales gains for the month are coming in weaker than expected. Stronger-than-normal sales in November, combined with unusually colder weather and big snowstorms, may have put a damper on industry sales for the month.
"Coming off of Black Friday, we saw more Black Friday activity across the entire industry than we ever have," said Kurt McNeil, GM's vice president of U.S. sales operations.
Ford sales analyst Erich Merkle said December was a difficult month for passenger car sales. December is typically a big sales month for pickups and luxury cars.
"There was some bad winter weather as well, so that probably hampered things slightly," Merkle said.
Still, sales for the year are expected to be about 15.6 million vehicles, according to several forecasts.
Chrysler said it sold 161,007 new cars and trucks in December as its all-new Jeep Cherokee had another impressive month for sales. Chrysler sold 15,038 Cherokees in the second full month the new SUV has been in showrooms, helping the Jeep record a 34 percent increase from December 2012.
Ford's December sales were helped by a 27 percent increase in Ford Fusion sales. Sales of the Fiesta slipped 20.2 percent, and Focus sales tumbled 31 percent from a year earlier.
"December was a strong close to an even better year for Ford," said John Felice, Ford's vice president of U.S. sales and marketing.
GM sales for the year increased 7 percent, despite the decline in December.
"2013 was the year that GM and the industry put the last traces of the recession in the rearview mirror," McNeil said.
In December, sales declined for all four of GM's brands: Chevrolet fell 8.1 percent; GMC, down 1.8 percent; Buick slipped 6.6 percent, and Cadillac declined 0.5 percent.
GM's pickup truck sales also suffered in December as sales of the Chevrolet Silverado slipped 16 percent and sales of the GMC Sierra fell 4.6 percent compared with the same month last year. Meanwhile, sales of Ford's F-Series pickups increased 8.4 percent and sales of the Ram 1500 pickup increased 11 percent.
McNeil pointed out that GM had a difficult comparison with last December, when it was selling down its old pickup model, and said GM has remained more disciplined on incentives on its new pickup truck models than competitors.
Toyota said its sales decreased 1.7 percent in December while Nissan's sales increased 10.5 percent and Audi's sales increased 14.6 percent. Volkswagen's sales dropped 22.7 percent.
Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said sales in December were heavily skewed towards the end of the month. Consumers tend to have more vacation time to visit dealerships and make decisions, and holiday deals get even better during the holidays.
"For consumers, this is generally the best time of year to purchase a new vehicle," Gutierrez said. "Dealers are trying to clear remaining 2013 model-year stock, which is 26 percent of current inventory, according to AutoTrader.com listings."
This year, analysts say, the automotive industry will continue to improve. Gutierrez predicts automakers will sell about 16.3 million new cars and trucks this year.
That increase, however, will be the smallest since the recession ended.
"Out of the initial depths of the Great Recession, financial institutions rushed into the arms of new car lending two to three years before other parts of the economy," said Morgan Stanley auto analyst Adam Jonas.
Now, Jonas said, automakers are increasing production faster than demand is rising.