Toyota is the leader in U.S. auto sales for the first time, taking away a title that General Motors had held for nearly a century.
It's yet another sign that U.S. 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.
Both Toyota and GM reported year-end sales Tuesday. GM posted full-year US sales of 2.2 million vehicles, which left it 114,000 vehicles, or 5% behind Toyota.
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.
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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."
Story continues after ranking of top-rated vehicles
The top-rated vehicles for 2022
Top-rated sedan: 2022 Honda Civic
Starting MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price): $22,915
Edmunds says: When a compact sedan survives for nearly 50 years and continues to redefine its segment, you know it's special. The Honda Civic is both sporty to drive and comfortable inside, with well-padded seats and a smooth ride. There's also much more space than you'd expect from a car in this class. The Civic sedan has a huge trunk, and there's ample space in the back seat too.
Counterpoint: Road noise is noticeable at any speed and can be rather intrusive on coarse surfaces.
Top-rated truck: 2021 Ford F-150
Starting MSRP: $30,985
Edmunds says: From tech to towing, the Ford F-150 continues to lead the pack and deliver the confidence that customers expect. Redesigned for 2021, the latest F-150 fended off all comers, extending its rule as a repeat Edmunds winner. We're impressed by the F-150's clever features, which include nearly fold-flat front seats and a disappearing gear shifter that creates a handy workspace. There's also an available onboard generator with the ability to power tools, a tailgate party or even your house — a big leap that left competitors flat-footed. Notably, we're giving the award to the 2021 model because the 2022 wasn't available for testing, but no significant changes are expected for 2022.
Counterpoint: While the F-150 rides pretty comfortably, the Ram 1500's coil-spring rear suspension provides a slightly better ride.
Top-rated SUV: 2022 Kia Telluride
Starting MSRP: $34,015
Edmunds says: As a midsize three-row SUV, the Kia Telluride provides comfortable and surprisingly luxurious accommodations for seven or even eight passengers. But it's not so big that it feels clumsy to drive or difficult to maneuver in tighter confines. And if you have a lighter passenger load, the Telluride's cabin space easily converts into cargo-friendly transport. There were a number of new and exciting SUVs introduced this year, but the Kia Telluride continues to stand above the rest. It takes home Edmunds' SUV award for the third year in a row.
Counterpoint: There are fewer storage bins and cubbies than you'll find in some rival SUVs.
Top-rated EV: 2021 Tesla Model 3
Starting MSRP: $46,190
Edmunds says: Although we've been tough critics of Tesla when warranted, we know a great car when we see it. In fact, we've acknowledged the Tesla Model 3 's greatness three years running — the Model 3 is another repeat winner as our top-ranked electric vehicle. While it has consistently failed to match its EPA range estimates in Edmunds' real-world testing, our numbers show that the Model 3 is still among the longest-range EVs on the market. It's also a hoot to drive, pairing rapid acceleration with slice-and-dice agility. Throw in the fact that Tesla's Supercharger network is arguably the best in the game, and it's clear that the Model 3 remains second to none.
Counterpoint: The Model 3's infotainment software supports neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto.
Editor's choice: 2022 Rivian R1T
Starting MSRP: $68,575 (estimated)
Edmunds says: The Rivian R1T is the first EV truck to hit the mainstream market, and what a debut. The R1T packs an amazing amount of on- and off-road performance, cutting-edge tech and unique style into a package that's slightly bigger than a typical midsize truck. In Edmunds' testing, the R1T rocketed from zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds — that's neck-and-neck with the latest Chevy Corvette — and turned in the best handling performance of any truck we've ever tested. Moreover, the R1T can tow up to 11,000 pounds and boasts an impressive payload capacity of 1,760 pounds. You probably won't need that sort of capability on a regular basis, but you'll certainly appreciate the storage provided by the R1T's spacious front trunk and clever gear tunnel under the front of the bed.
Counterpoint: The R1T's touchscreen user interface was slow to respond in our testing, and the Bluetooth connection occasionally cut out. There's a chance this could be remedied via future software updates.
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.
Krebs said part of GM's sales advantage in previous years was that it sold more of its car in fleet sales to businesses, such as rental car companies, typically at less than the retail price paid by consumers. But with a limited supply of cars, fleet sales have virtually disappeared this year, she said.
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.
Toyota took away the global lead in auto sales from GM in 2007, and for a few years the two went back-and-forth on global sales leadership with Toyota passing GM most recently in 2012. Now the race for global sales is between Toyota and Volkswagen.
But GM, which took the top sales title from Ford back in 1927, has been able to maintain its US sales lead all the way through other tough periods. Those include 2019, when members of the United Auto Workers union shut down GM with a nearly six-week strike, and 2009, when GM was forced to file for bankruptcy — temporarily or permanently closing many US plants, discontinuing its weaker brands and shedding more than 1,000 dealerships.
"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.
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