U.S. auto sales struggled to gain ground in November and big improvements aren't expected until people stop worrying about losing their jobs.
Sales were flat compared to last November, according to Autodata Corp. Even higher incentives couldn't push the needle much beyond the dismal lows seen a year ago, when a credit freeze and the financial meltdown kept car buyers at home.
Fuel-efficient cars showed continued strength, as did crossovers, which are as roomy as SUVs but are built on lower car frames, bolstering fuel economy. Truck sales were again weak.
Last month's big winner was South Korea's Hyundai, which posted double-digit sales growth. Sales at the top three sellers in the U.S. _ General Motors, Ford and Toyota _ held steady, while Chrysler struggled for yet another month.
Sales were down 11 percent from October. But Jeff Schuster, executive director of automotive forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates, said the industry is encouraged by the seasonally adjusted sales rate, which takes into account perennial factors like higher sales in the spring and summer. That rate has been climbing each month since Cash for Clunkers ended in August, he said.
The adjusted rate was 10.9 million in November compared with 10.5 million in October.
"If that trend continues to hold, that fits with our expectations of a long and slow recovery," Schuster said.
Small monthly auto sales increases are likely as the economy continues its slow improvement, but larger gains will not happen until the unemployment rate drops substantially and people feel confident spending money on big-ticket items, said Martin Zimmerman, a former chief economist at Ford Motor Co., who now teaches at the University of Michigan. The U.S. jobless rate hit 10.2 percent in October, a 26-year high.
"At this point, jobs and confidence are intertwined, and that seems to be holding consumer spending in check," said Emily Kolinski Morris, a current senior economist at Ford.
Carmakers continued to rely on discounts and other incentive spending to sell cars and trucks last month. Sales incentives rose 2 percent to $2,713 per vehicle, according to the auto Web site Edmunds.com. But those offers lacked the desperation of last November, when car makers boosted incentives by 15 percent, indicating automakers now feel more confident about their ability to sell cars without drastic discounting.
General Motors said sales fell 2 percent in November, though sales of its core Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC brands rose. GM executives said despite the sales decline, the company is on better footing than it was late in 2008, with fewer brands and models. Even so, late in the afternoon, the automaker said CEO Frederick "Fritz" Henderson was stepping down after eight months in the job.
Ford's sales were essentially flat compared to last November, at 122,846, although sales of crossovers rose 26 percent and car sales rose 14 percent. Trucks and SUVs saw double-digit declines.
Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said Ford's truck sales have plummeted in part because of the decline in the construction industry. But he said Ford also is seeing fewer image buyers, who buy trucks for their look even though they don't really need them.
"The gas crunch gave a scare to that," he said. "I think the image market's changed, and I don't know when it's coming back."
The image buyer may now be driving gas-sipping hybrids. Ford said sales of hybrids sales increased 73 percent, to 2,361. At about $2.65 per gallon, regular gasoline is up around 50 cents over November of last year. Sales of the Toyota Prius, the best-selling hybrid, were up 11 percent to 9,617.
But fuel-efficiency wasn't the mantra for every buyer. Honda said truck sales rose 15 percent, while GM said Chevrolet Tahoe SUV sales jumped 57 percent.
Toyota said its U.S. sales rose 2.6 percent to 133,700, led by standbys like the Camry sedan and the RAV4 crossover. Hyundai sales soared 46 percent on the back of its top-selling Sonata sedan.
Honda's U.S. sales fell 2.9 percent in November on slower sales of small cars like the Fit and the Civic. Nissan's U.S. sales rose 21 percent to 56,288 on higher sales of cars like the Altima and Maxima. Truck sales rose as well, but at a slower rate, while sales at its Infiniti luxury line dropped 26 percent.
Chrysler continued to underperform the industry, selling only 63,560 vehicles last month, a decline of 25 percent. Chrysler's sales dropped 38 percent in the first 11 months of the year, steeper than the 24 percent drop for the industry overall. The automaker announced an array of sales incentives, including zero percent financing and cash rebates.
One good sign: Chrysler's market share rose to 8.4 percent from 7.9 percent in October, an indication that consumer have gained confidence in the company after getting details of its five-year business plan earlier this month.
Last November, U.S. car and light truck sales fell to a 26-year low of 743,606, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. Sales tumbled even lower in January and February before climbing steadily in the spring and summer.
Although the factors buffeted the industry a year ago have abated, auto sales will not lead the economy out of recession, Zimmerman said.
"I think we have to see more of a coincident rise in the level of economic activity," he said. "I think it's a ways away. It's coming. It's not here yet."
Automakers showed some optimism for the coming year. Both Ford and GM announced first-quarter production increases. Ford will increase production 58 percent to 550,000 vehicles, while GM will boost output more than 130 percent to 650,000 vehicles. Both plan to double production of cars to meet the growing demand for fuel-efficient vehicles. Truck production will also increase, but by smaller percentages.
George Pipas, Ford's top U.S. sales analyst, said first-quarter production hit historic lows last year, so an increase in 2010 was expected. He said Ford is trying to hew closely to demand and not overproduce, a problem that has plagued the Detroit Three in the past.
"We're going to produce to current demand and not some hoped-for, future demand that might materialize," he said.
AP Auto Writer Dan Strumpf contributed to this report from New York.