DETROIT (AP) -- U.S. new vehicle sales rebounded slightly last year from 2020's dismal numbers, but forecasters expect them to be more than 2 million below the years before the coronavirus pandemic.
The reason? Although there are plenty of customers who want to buy new vehicles at hefty prices, there still aren't enough computer chips for the industry to fully crank up its factories. So supplies are short, prices are high, and many customers can't get what they want.
"Demand is not off at all," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Cox Automotive. "What is off is sales, because the inventory doesn't exist."
Cox expects 2021 sales to be 14.9 million vehicles, up 2.5% from 2020, the year the pandemic hit the U.S. and forced the industry to shut down for eight weeks. But over the five years before the pandemic, sales averaged 17.3 million.
Among the hardest hit by the chip shortage was General Motors, which was unseated by Toyota last year as the nation's top-selling automaker for the first time.
GM on Tuesday reported that last year's U.S. sales fell nearly 13% from 2020 levels to just over 2.2 million. Toyota, on the other hand, saw its sales rise 10.4% to just over 2.3 million.
Like other automakers, GM was forced to temporarily close factories during the year as it struggled to get semiconductors, especially early in the year. Krebs said she isn't sure if GM will be able to dislodge Toyota this year because Toyota has managed the chip shortage better and has a faster distribution.
GM diverted limited chip supplies to higher-margin pickup trucks and full-size SUVs, boosting the company's bottom line, spokesman Jim Cain said. Early last year, GM forecast pretax earnings of $10 billion to $11 billion, but expects to finish the year around $14 billion, he said.
The company, Cain said, expects the chip shortage to ease this year, with more available in the second half.
Among other automakers reporting full-year sales numbers were Honda, with an 8.9% increase, while Hyundai saw an 18.6% jump.
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.
There are signs that the number of vehicles on dealer lots is growing, though. It rose to more than 1 million last month for the first time since August, Krebs said. But that's still 1.5 million below 2020 and 2.5 million fewer than in 2019.
Cox is predicting that U.S. new vehicle sales sales will increase by more than 1 million this year, to around 16 million.
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, 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.
Owners have an average of $10,199 worth of equity in their trades, 83% higher than a year ago, J.D. Power said.
"The customer right now just wants the (good) experience and the car," Kelleher said. "If you have the car and you get them the car, they're going to be happy with you."
In normal times, Kelleher would have 750 vehicles for sale on his lot. Now he's got 12. But he isn't paying interest on the inventory and has been able to cut advertising 30%.
Randy Parker, Hyundai's U.S. sales chief, said dealers got better at selling over the internet when the pandemic started, and they're skilled at getting customers to wait until the exact vehicle they want arrives from the factory. "We've gotten a lot better at pre-selling our inbound pipeline," he said.
Because of strong demand and low supplies, J.D. Power says the average new vehicle price rose to $45,743 in December, 20% higher than a year ago and the first time it finished above $45,000.
Sedans definitely aren't driving demand for new vehicles. J.D. Power reports that SUVs and pickup trucks accounted for a record 80.2% of new vehicle sales in December.