CHICAGO — The Detroit Three automakers posted solid December US sales Wednesday, driving a strong 2011 performance and expectations for even better results this year as the industry slowly climbs out of a deep downturn.
"It's now clear that auto sales should continue to grow in 2012 barring a shock to the system," said Don Johnson, who heads US sales operations for General Motors.
"Over the course of the fourth quarter of this year clear signs emerged that US consumers are more confident and other underpinnings of our economy are at least stable or improving."
Total industry sales were forecast to come in slightly above 13 million vehicles in 2011 -- about a 10 percent gain over the 11.8 million sold in 2010 -- once final results are posted later Wednesday.
GM forecast that 2012 sales will reach 13.5 to 14 million.
That's still down significantly from the 15 to 17 million vehicles sold annually in the dozen years leading up to the 2008 crash, but solid enough growth that GM, Ford and Chrysler should continue to post rich profits.
"I think this pace of growth is good for the industry and for the country," Johnson said in a conference call.
"It gives the industry the chance to really institutionalize the discipline that has allowed us to prosper at lower sales volumes."
GM's sales rose five percent to 234,351 in December and were up 14 percent at 2.5 million vehicles for the year.
Ford also forecast solid growth in 2012 with US sales rising to 13.5 to 14.5 million vehicles and global sales in a range of 75 to 85 million vehicles.
"The momentum coming out of the fourth quarter of last year provides confidence that the lower end of this range is less likely," Ford chief economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick said in a conference call.
"At the same time we are well aware of how quickly the business conditions can change, so we'll keep our focus on matching production to demand."
Ford's sales rose 10 percent to 210,140 in December and were up 11 percent at 2.1 million vehicle in 2011.
Chrysler, the number-three US automaker, reported US sales in December jumped 37 percent from a year earlier to the highest monthly level since May 2008.
For all of 2011, Chrysler sold 1.4 million vehicles, an increase of 26 percent from 2010.
"We were the fastest-growing automaker in the country, increasing our market share 1.3 percentage points during 2011," said Reid Bigland, head of US sales.
Toyota saw sales drop seven percent to 1.6 million vehicles in 2011, largely due to supply shortages caused by the devastating March 11 Japanese quake and tsunami.
Production did not fully recover until October and was hit again by flooding in Thailand.
Inventories remained thin, with sales up just 0.4 percent in December to 178,131 vehicles, Toyota's highest volume for the year.
"We begin 2012 with high expectations fueled by a strengthening economy, increasing consumer confidence and the biggest surge of new and updated products in our history," said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales, USA.
The 2011 results cap a remarkable turnaround for the Detroit automakers.
Italy's Fiat has been steering Chrysler since the American company emerged from a government-supported bankruptcy in June 2009, gradually building up its stake after buying shares from the US Treasury.
Chrysler swung into a profit of $211 million in the 2011 third quarter after years of bleeding balance sheets.
GM, which also underwent a government-backed bankruptcy in 2009, hauled in $7.1 billion in the first nine months of 2011 after posting a $4.7 billion profit in 2010.
Ford, which survived the downturn without resorting to government aid, posted a $6.6 billion profit for the first nine months of 2011 after earning $6.6 billion in 2010 and $2.7 billion in 2009.