(Updates with ADR prices in 11th paragraph, Mazda, Subaru results in final two paragraphs.)
Feb. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Honda Motor Co. ended eight months of shrinking U.S. sales with an unexpected January gain as recovering auto demand also buoyed growth for Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co.
Honda yesterday posted an 8.8 percent increase from a year earlier, compared with an average estimate of a 1.2 percent drop in a Bloomberg survey of six analysts. Sales rose 7.5 percent at Toyota, Asia’s largest automaker; 10 percent at Nissan; and 15 percent at Hyundai. Japanese and South Korean brands gained 13 percent, topping the industry’s 11 percent, Autodata Corp. said.
“Finally, Honda is getting back on its feet again,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Edmunds.com, an automotive pricing and data company in Santa Monica, California.
Continued recovery in the U.S. economy combined with pent- up consumer demand to replace aging vehicles pushed January sales to a 14.2 million annualized rate, the highest since August 2009 during the U.S. government’s cash-for-clunkers trade-in program. The average age of U.S. cars and trucks has risen to a record 10.8 years, according to R.L. Polk & Co.
“Some people are starting to feel comfortable enough in the economy that they are willing to buy a car,” said Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics Inc., an auto consultant in Birmingham, Michigan. “Others are saying, ‘I’ve got to replace this old car because it’s nickel and diming me to death.’”
Among U.S. carmakers, Chrysler Group LLC, majority owned by Fiat SpA, had a 44 percent increase. General Motors Co. reported a decline of 6.1 percent, better than the average estimate of a 7.3 percent drop from eight analysts, and Ford Motor Co.’s light-vehicle sales rose 7.3 percent.
Toyota’s sales of Toyota, Lexus and Scion models rose to 124,540 vehicles last month from 115,856 a year earlier, aided by a 56 percent jump for Camry sedans. The Toyota City, Japan- based company’s increase exceeded the 7 percent average of six analysts’ estimates.
“The Camry results could have been even better,” Bob Carter, Toyota’s group vice president of U.S. sales, said in a conference call. The company didn’t anticipate that the Camry SE version would sell as well as it has, he said.
“The Camry SE is bringing in new and younger buyers at levels we have not previously experienced, with a median age of 45,” Carter said. To meet demand for the version, Toyota is adjusting the production mix to more than 40 percent for the Camry SE from 8 percent a year ago, he said.
Toyota’s market share declined to 13.6 percent in January from 14.1 percent a year earlier, according to Autodata, an industry researcher based in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.
Toyota’s American depositary receipts rose 2.3 percent to $75.20 yesterday in New York. Honda’s ADRs gained 3.4 percent to $35.19, and Nissan’s advanced 2.2 percent to $19.22 in over-the- counter trading in New York.
Honda, Japan’s third-largest automaker, said it sold 83,009 Honda and Acura vehicles, increasing from 76,269 a year earlier. Deliveries rose 50 percent for the Civic small car, released last year to mixed reviews, and 16 percent for the revamped compact CR-V crossover.
The company’s U.S. sales had fallen every month starting in May after production was disrupted by the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan and by flooding in Thailand later in the year.
“Honda’s return to full strength on the manufacturing front is already beginning to pay dividends on the sales floor,” John Mendel, the Tokyo-based automaker’s U.S. executive vice president, said in a statement.
Honda’s market share was 9.1 percent in January, a drop of 0.2 percentage point from a year earlier, Autodata said.
Toyota and Honda may gain the most U.S. market share this year, according to a Bloomberg survey of analysts last week. Buyers who are loyal to the brands put off purchases last year while the companies dealt with production disruptions caused by the natural disasters in Japan and Thailand.
Nissan’s sales rose to 79,313 Nissan and Infiniti vehicles from 71,847 in January 2011. The gains were led by the mid-size Altima sedan, Rogue compact crossovers and Quest minivans, Al Castignetti, the Yokohama, Japan-based company’s vice president of U.S. sales, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Easier access to new-vehicle loans and pent-up consumer demand should extend sales gains throughout 2012, he said.
“Starting in the fourth quarter of 2011 and running into January, the sheer volume of traffic at dealers is way up,” Castignetti said.
Nissan’s January market share was 8.7 percent, compared with 8.8 percent a year earlier, according to Autodata.
Hyundai, South Korea’s largest automaker, sold 42,694 new vehicles, compared with 37,214 a year earlier. The Seoul-based company benefited from increased deliveries of Sonata sedans, Tucson crossovers and the new Veloster hatchback.
Kia Motors Corp., Hyundai’s affiliate, reported a 28 percent increase to 35,517 vehicles, as sales of Optima sedans more than doubled.
Combined sales for Hyundai and Kia, which operate separately, climbed 20 percent to 78,211. That beat the 18 percent average estimate of four analysts.
Combined market share for the two companies rose to 8.6 percent from 7.9 percent, Autodata said.
“It will be a challenge for the Korean brands to keep their momentum in this competitive marketplace,” said Krebs, the Edmunds analyst.
Mazda Motor Corp. had a 68 percent sales surge in January, led by an 83 percent increase in of Mazda3 compact cars. The Hiroshima, Japan-based company has promoted the model, that gets 40 miles per gallon in highway driving, heavily in television and web-based commercials.
Subaru, the auto brand of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., said sales rose 21 percent last month. Among smaller brands, Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s deliveries fell 18 percent and Suzuki Motor Corp. had a 41 percent decline.
--With assistance from Craig Trudell in Detroit. Editors: John Lear, Jeffrey Tannenbaum
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