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US 2020 auto sales slide 15%, but recovery stronger than expected

Highlights

Analysts estimate sales totaling 14.4 million units in 2020

Full-year projections boosted by December consumer activity

Pittsburgh — US new vehicle sales are forecast to have fallen about 15% year over year to 14.4 million units in full-year 2020, the lowest total since the beginning of the decade, but the industry's performance finished the year stronger than anticipated, according to industry analysts.

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Cox Automotive said strong December sales boosted the year's final projection, according to a report Jan. 6.

"The final days of December appear to have been stronger than forecast, and a number of [automotive] OEMs have cited unexpected robust retail activity over the holidays," said Charlie Chesbrough, Cox senior economist. "There was also no shortage of positive news in the last week of December, and that may have encouraged consumers and lifted sales – passage of the stimulus package, more certainty around the election outcome, coupled with a lot of vaccine news."

Cox said sales in 2020 were similar to those in 2012 when the automotive market was recovering from the 2008 financial crisis.

Consultant JD Power. separately said new vehicle retail sales in December are projected to have reached 1.4 million units, rising 1% from December 2019 when adjusted for the number of selling days.

"Retail sales are up, transaction prices are at record levels and retailer profits are at all-time highs," Thomas King, JD Power president of the data and analytics, said in a recent report. "This reinforces that manufacturers and retailers are succeeding in getting vehicles built, shipped and sold in alignment with resilient consumer demand."

In its own report, automotive industry analyst Edmunds said there are still uncertainties to consider in 2021, but the market should continue to recover at a steady pace without the steep declines recorded in 2020.

"Even if we face another wave of retail shutdowns, the good news is that dealers are far better prepared now for selling virtually than ever before," Edmunds' executive director of insights Jessica Caldwell said. "The vaccines on the way should only help keep consumer confidence high."

Edmunds said the projections put 2020 on track to be the lowest sales year for the automotive industry since 2011.

Both Edmunds and JD Power also projected 2020 sales of about 14.4 million units.