Resilience and the auto industry went hand-in-glove in 2012 as
automakers plumped up their bottom lines, ladled on luxury features in
new models and turned their once-battered fortunes on their heads.
seemingly could blunt the industry's momentum. Hiring soared at auto
plants around the country, with some places adding third shifts, worker
overtime and even six-day work weeks to meet the demand for vehicles.
prices surged, and gas prices topped an average $3.90 a gallon, though
they never reached the July 2008, record of $4.11 a gallon. Yet, vehicle
sales remained strong. Even when Superstorm Sandy lopped off October's
sales by tearing through the East Coast, it blew new life into
November's tally. Buyers were willing to pay more, as well. The average
transaction price for all vehicles -- the price people actually paid for
a new car at dealerships -- hit a record $30,700 in March, according to
TrueCar.com. It still hovers above $30,000.
The year was marked
by high-profile departures. American Suzuki Motor announced that it's
going to stop selling cars in the U.S. Saab all but died in bankruptcy
but was resurrected when National Electric Vehicle Sweden, a Chinese
company, bought its assets to turn it into an electric car company.
Porsche, designer of the signature Porsche 911 sports coupe and
descendant of the founder of the automotive giant, died. America lost
its own design and racing icon, Carroll Shelby, creator of the Shelby
Cobra and the Shelby Mustang. The legendary Shelby, a key figure in the
automotive industry for more than five decades, became synonymous with
Against that backdrop, here are the year's top automotive stories as picked by USA TODAY editors and reporters:
1. The auto industry stages a comeback.
Wow, what a year. The auto industry came clawing back with the highest
sales since 2007. After an expected strong showing this month, the
industry is on track to sell 14.5 million new vehicles this year, says
analyst Brian Johnson of Barclays in a note to investors. That would be
an impressive 13.5% increase from last year Even more remarkable is how
the industry has steadily churned more sales since the depths of the
recession in 2009, when sales bottomed at 10.4 million. If the industry
can keep its momentum, it could get back to 16 million in 2013, which
would be on par with the best banner years of a decade ago.
2. The auto industry takes center stage in the presidential contest.
President Obama's decision to bail out General Motors and Chrysler
during their darkest hours figured large in his re-election victory
over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Obama used the bailout
to pound away at GOP nominee Romney in the Rust Belt, especially
Michigan and northern Ohio, where Detroit automakers have unionized
factories. Though Romney was born in Detroit to a former Michigan
governor who had run American Motors, he was hampered by a 2008 op-ed he
wrote for The New York Times headlined, "Let Detroit Go
Bankrupt." Since no Republican has made it to the White House without
Ohio, it was considered pivotal to Obama's re-election. Obama won Ohio
with 50.7% of the vote, compared with Romney's 47.7%.
3. Hybrids go mainstream.
In the past, motorists have associated the greenest of cars with
distinctive designs that sometimes sacrificed performance or comfort,
such as Honda's original Insight or an early Toyota Prius. Now, hybrids
have gone mainstream, with big sales expected. A 2013 Toyota Camry
Hybrid sedan averages 41 miles a gallon. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is rated
at 47 mpg, not far off the 50 mpg of a 2013 Prius (although the EPA is
reviewing that Fusion figure). Automakers need to bring hybrids to their
mainstream cars and try to meet a new corporate average gas mileage
standard of 35.5 mpg by 2016.
4. Ford's CEO picks a successor.
Talk about big shoes to fill. No other CEO has made a bigger, more
longer-lasting impact on a Detroit automaker in recent years than Ford
Motor's Alan Mulally, who arrived from Boeing in 2006. He shepherded
Ford through the recession and avoided the bankruptcy reorganizations
that both General Motors and Chrysler undertook. Ford had a
particularly strong bench of executives to eventually succeed Mulally,
but the folksy Kansan named Mark Fields -- the head of the automaker's
operations for North and South America -- as his heir apparent. Fields,
who took over this month as chief operating officer, is best known for
turning around Japan's Mazda when it was under Ford's control. He also
did a stint as a top executive for Ford of Europe. Fields is an astute
strategist who isn't afraid of making gutsy decisions.
5. Forty miles a gallon?
Instead of styling or features, automakers in 2012 had to deal with a
world in which buyers cared most about how much mileage a car could
squeeze out of every gallon. But where do you set the bar in a way that
impresses would-be customers? Hyundai found it when it marketed its new
Elantra compact as getting 40 miles a gallon in highway driving.
Suddenly, competitors were forced to try to match the easy-to-remember
number, usually with editions that added special gas-savings. Honda went
after it with special editions of the Civic, Ford with the Focus and
Chevrolet with the Cruze. The irony? Under pressure from the
Environmental Protection Agency, Hyundai had to revise its gas-mileage
figures on several models and lost the ability to claim 40 mpg.
6. Recalls that stung.
Automakers loathe recalls, which are not only expensive but
embarrassing. In terms of sheer numbers, it appeared that the year
would end with about as many as 2011. But some stung worse than others.
Ford, after touting the wonders of its 1.6-liter EcoBoost turbocharged
engines, had to recall 89,153 Fusion sedans and Escape crossovers
earlier this month because of an overheating issue that could lead to
fires. All appeared to end well since the problem could be fixed with a
7. Toyota and Honda resurrected. Both
saw their sales slammed by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in
Japan, then flooding in Thailand. This year, with factories repaired and
the supply pipeline back to normal, sales jumped in the U.S. Toyota
sold 28.8% more vehicles through November of this year, vs. the same
period a year ago, Autodata says. For Honda, the gain was 23.8%. Toyota
is likely to be the world's best-selling automaker. But it can't get
comfortable. Volkswagen saw a 30.7% gain in the U.S. during the first
11 months of this year.
8. Design's slippery slope. Hearts
were aflutter a couple of years back when Jaguar unveiled its XJ, and
Audi showed off the A7. Both sedans had a similar shape, the gently
sloping roof line of a fastback that gave them the racy looks of a
coupe. In 2012, the style became the de facto industry standard, as
mainstream makers followed. The new Chevrolet Impala gets the same
treatment, along with Toyota Avalon and the Mazda6. The slope is
gorgeous but not always practical. Not only can it eat into rear-seat
headroom, but it makes the trunk appear smaller.
9. Michigan becomes a right-to-work state.
For the labor union movement, no state has been more important than
Michigan, home to United Auto Workers and thousands employed making
cars. The number of Michigan workers represented by a union fell from
27% in 1990 to 18% in 2011, the Detroit Free Press reports. Union
influence has declined as Detroit automakers shut down plants while
foreign makers, both European and Asian, opened non-union plants mostly
in the South. But the fight in Michigan isn't finished. Unions vow a
tough struggle to put the Wolverine State firmly back in the union
10. Goodbye "Government Motors." The Treasury
Department announced earlier this month that it will sell all of its
remaining 500 million shares of General Motors in the next 12 to 15
months, ending the $49.5 billion bailout that kept the nation's largest
automaker alive. Though the bailout kept thousands of workers employed
and let one of the nation's most famous corporate names live on, it led
to the ugly moniker "Government Motors" and resentment by some
investors. GM will benefit, though, with fewer restrictions on its
operations without government strings attached, such as caps on