Japanese carmaker Toyota outsold General Motors in the United States in 2021, marking the first time since 1931 that the Detroit automaker was not the nation's top-selling automaker, as a shortage of semiconductors roiled the car industry.
Toyota sold 2.332 million vehicles in the U.S. last year, compared with 2.218 million for General Motors, the automakers said on Tuesday.
GM's U.S. sales were down 13% for 2021 – and down 43% in the fourth quarter – while Toyota was up 10% for the year. GM last had lower sales in 2010 at 2.202 million.
For all of 2020, GM's U.S. sales totaled 2.55 million, compared with Toyota's 2.11 million and Ford Motor Co's 2.04 million.
Last year was marred by a shortage of semiconductors used heavily in vehicles, forcing automakers to focus on their most profitable models.
GM said on Tuesday it expects U.S. economic growth will boost U.S. total light-duty vehicle industry sales from around 15 million in 2021 to around 16 million in 2022.
GM has been the largest seller of vehicles in the United States since 1931, when it surpassed Ford, according to data from industry publication Automotive News.
Toyota is not boasting about the accomplishment. Senior Vice President Jack Hollis said the automaker is "grateful" for its loyal customers, but "being No. 1 is never a focus or priority."
The Japanese automaker does not see it as sustainable that it can retain its U.S. sales lead and had no plans to use the 2021 accomplishment in any kind of advertising, he added. Toyota had been credited by analysts for weathering the chip shortage better than other automakers.
GM spokesperson Jim Cain said the Detroit automaker had a very strong sales year in the United States in full-size SUVs and pickup trucks as it has focused on profitability, and as the supply of semiconductors improves, so will sales.
"I wouldn't rush out if I were (Toyota), and get a 'We're No. 1' tattoo," he said.
GM under Chief Executive Mary Barra also has emphasized profitability over volume, abandoning such money-losing markets as Europe and Russia.
For the entire industry, sales finished 2021 at just under 15 million vehicles, according to Wards Intelligence, with the annual sales rate in the month of December finishing at 12.44 million. The full-year number was well below the five-year average of 17.3 million from 2015-2019.
IHS Markit forecasts U.S. sales are expected to reach nearly 15.5 million in 2022. Toyota sees industry sales jumping to 16.5 million this year, with demand even higher if the industry can boost production further, with its own sales topping 2.4 million.
"If you would have asked me to predict how the year was going to go at the beginning of (last) January, I would have gotten it all wrong because this whole microchip shortage just came out of left field and it wreaked a lot of havoc," Hyundai Motor America sales chief Randy Parker said in an interview. "But at the same time, it sharpened our skill set."
"I'm very bullish on 2022," he added. Hyundai's U.S. sales last year rose 19% to more than 738,000 vehicles, including a record number on the retail side.
Among other automakers reporting full-year sales numbers were Ford with a 7% year-over-year decline, Stellantis with a 2.2% drop, and Subaru with sales falling 4.6% below 2020. Honda posted an 8.9% increase, while Hyundai saw a 23.3% jump. Nissan sales also rose, by 8.7%, while Volkswagen Group posted an 11.7% increase, according to Motor Intelligence.
Analysts and industry executives say although chip supplies are improving, it's not certain when they'll get back to pre-pandemic levels. The average gas-powered vehicle has about 1,000 chips, and electric vehicles can have more than double that number.
IHS Markit analyst Phil Amsrud, who follows automotive chips, said supplies won't improve immediately.
“We're seeing 2022 as being an improvement over 2021, but it's not going to start January third or fourth,” he said, adding that the second half should be better than the first.
Amsrud attributed the vehicle inventory growth more to automakers managing the chip shortage better, rather than any dramatic growth in chip supplies. Like GM, many have allocated chips to build more expensive models.
David Kelleher, an owner of a Stellantis dealership in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, said he doesn't see much change in auto sales and prices this year or next, but he's happy with that.
He's making record profits, selling just about every vehicle he gets at sticker price, while customers are happy to find vehicles. They're also getting high prices for trade-ins because used car prices have skyrocketed.