It’s yet another sign that US automakers have lost their dominance in their home market.
As recently as 2005, Toyota was No. 4 in US sales, with GM, Ford and what was then known as DaimlerChrysler all in front, with a combined 57% of US sales between them. But in 2021, GM, Ford and Stellantis — the European automaker that owns Chrysler — had only 38% of the US market between them in the first nine months of the year. Even adding in Tesla only gets the US automakers to just over 40% of sales.
GM fell slightly behind Toyota in second-quarter sales, and it was way behind in the third quarter. Toyota’s fourth-quarter sales dropped by 30% compared to the last three months of 2020, but GM’s sales plunged 43%, allowing Toyota to pad its lead.
A shortage of computer chips that limited production and the supply of vehicles was responsible for the plunge in sales at the end of the year. Industrywide US sales are forecast to be down 24% in the quarter, according to Cox Automotive. Most automakers will report US sales Tuesday, with Ford set to report its sales on Wednesday.
Whether Toyota is able to keep the US sales lead in future years is uncertain, according to experts.
“I wouldn’t expect Toyota to necessarily keep this lead,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry insights at Edmunds. “It’s not like GM is doing something magical all these years. They just have more channels to sell in and more brands.”
GM suggested it expects to be back in the lead soon.
“The semiconductor shortage, among other things, created an unprecedented set of circumstances in 2021,” the company said. “Even so, GM extended its lead in full-size pickups and SUVs. And 2022 begins with a gradually improving supply chain, and that should lead to growth in 2022 as we launch several new vehicles — including EVs and redesigned pickups.”
A continued tight supply of chips in 2022 could force both automakers, and most of the rest of the industry, to build fewer vehicles than needed to meet demand.
“The chips are still the wild card for this year,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Cox Automotive.
The horse race
The horse race between automakers is something that gets attention in the industry but not much from car buyers, said Krebs.
“I can’t tell you how many buyers don’t even know Chevy is part of GM or Lexus is part of Toyota,” she said.
“If EVs and autonomous vehicles are the future, GM is setting themselves up quite well,” she said.
Toyota, which builds 70% of the cars and trucks that it sells in the United States at five US plants, issued a statement saying it is “grateful to our loyal customers for putting their safety and trust in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.” It said its sales ranking has never been a focus or priority.
“The company’s focus has always been — and will continue to be — on being the best brand in terms of safety and quality in customers’ minds,” said Toyota.