Auto sales end '09 on upswing, Ford surges

A Ford logo reflects a car dealership in Manassas, Virginia, August 3, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co posted a 33 percent sales gain in December as U.S. auto sales ended 2009 on an upswing after a year when GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and China overtook the United States as the biggest car market.

Sales in the United States in 2009 plunged to just 10.4 million cars and light trucks, the lowest level in 27 years.

In December, Ford sales surged 33 percent from a year earlier and it gained market share for the full year, reversing a slide that began in 1995.

Toyota Motor Corp, battling to restore an image for market-leading quality and safety, was just behind Ford with a 32 percent sales gain for December.

Even after a 20 percent drop in sales for the year, Toyota said it had emerged as the top-selling automaker on a retail basis in the United States, topping GM for the first time.

The Ford sales gain was far stronger than expected and sent shares of the No. 2 U.S. automaker up almost 7 percent to their highest level since August 2005.

Automakers said the strong finish to a dismal 2009 had set the industry up for a better year ahead. Analysts project 2010 U.S. sales between 11 million and 12.5 million vehicles -- well below the 16 million sales rate that held from 2000 to 2007.

“For 2010, I’m leaving my seatbelt on because I think that volatility is part of the new norm,” said Ford sales chief Ken Czubay.

December results for other major automakers were mixed. General Motors Co and Chrysler, which both filed for bankruptcy in 2009, lagged. Chrysler’s sales dropped 4 percent. GM posted a sales decline of 6 percent.