With 2009 past us and full sales figures out for the year, we can now get an accurate lay of the land.

2009 was one of the worst years in terms of car sales since the 1970s. For the year, sales were down industry-wide by 21%. A total of 10,429,553 vehicles were sold. Overall, the market declined by about 2.8 million vehicles from 2008.

The contraction was felt hardest by what I’ve described as the “Movers and Shakers” of the industry. These top 7 automakers represent 86.7% of all the vehicles sold in the United States.

Out of the group, General Motors and Chrysler fared the worst. Collectively, the two lost 4.5% of market share, or the equivalent of about 450,000 lost sales. Those sales were picked up by some of the ancillary automakers (more on them tomorrow), but some sales also went to Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Ford and Hyundai.

The biggest sales successes were at Hyundai and Ford. Ford, which is much larger than Hyundai, suffered a decline in sales from 2008, but increased its market share by a full percentage point (15.5%).

In 2008, it would have been a bold statement to call Hyundai a “Mover and Shaker,” but not so in 2009. Hyundai’s market share increased from 5.1% to 7.1%. All of this change has increased the volatility of automaker rankings.

General Motors remains number one, but is so very close to losing that title to Toyota. In turn, Toyota now has Ford breathing down its neck. Honda surpassed Chrysler in becoming the fourth largest automaker. Hyundai is also precariously close to surpassing Nissan.

Reading the tea leaves, Chrysler’s downward trajectory will probably continue in 2010. It’s entirely possible that the maker could be usurped by Nissan and Hyundai this year. Needless to say, 2010 is anyone’s game, but for now let’s review the year that’s passed.

gm_logo General Motors: To say GM dropped the ball in 2009 is a massive understatement. The post-bankruptcy, government/union-owned automaker sold 2,084,492 vehicles in 2009. That’s down 30.1% from 2008, or the equivalent of losing about 1 million in vehicle volume. GM lost a whopping 2.4% worth of market share in 2009, the equivalent of losing a Mazda-sized car company.

GM’s truck-to-car mix was 58% to 42% for 2009, which is the exact same product mix as last year. GM’s cars actually performed worse than its trucks, but both performed below industry average (Car: -30.5%, Truck: -29.4%).

GM’s bright spots were its new crossovers. The Chevrolet Traverse and Equinox performed well; both will probably sell in the hundred thousands for 2010. The GMC Terrain, Buick Enclave and Cadillac SRX also performed admirably. GM’s Sierra and Silverado performed worse than their cross-town rivals at Ford and Chrysler, thus losing market share in the coveted pickup market.

As for cars, GM’s bestselling car was the Chevrolet Impala (the fleet rental queen) with 165,565 units, down 37.7% from 2008. The Chevrolet Malibu is all but certain to surpass the ancient Impala in sales for 2010. Malibu sales showed a strong 161,568 units. Cobalt sales were down about 45%. The only GM car to post positive growth was, ironically, the defunct Pontiac G8 (+54.4%). The Camaro performed well with 61,648 sold, but that wasn’t enough to beat the Mustang in the pony car wars.

GM’s dead brands (Saab, Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer) managed to hull in 268,686 units (-46% from 2008). If GM can’t manage to absorb these sales in its remaining brands, expect the automaker to lose another 1% to 1.5% worth of market share in 2010.

toyota Toyota: Despite the bumps and bruises inflicted by recalls, safety concerns, and even some quality issues, Toyota endured the torture and made the year a wash. Toyota sold 1,770,149 vehicles in 2009, down from 2,217,662 in 2008. Still, Toyota actually increased market share by 0.3% from 2008, to end with a solid 17% share, keeping Ford far at bay and sneaking up on GM in becoming the number one carmaker for America. Toyota is now the largest retail seller of cars in America.

The Lexus brand retained its position as the best-selling luxury make– a position it’s held for 10 years now. The Toyota RAV4, Venza and Lexus RX all had positive growth this year, and the Camry increased market share in the midsized car category.

Still, Toyota has its troubles. While the Toyota brand held its own in the car segments, truck sales fell precipitously to 557,743 units, down 25.7%. The Sequoia, 4Runner and FJ Cruiser were all down nearly 50%. Also, while the RX is an exemplary sales success, it is disconcerting to think that nearly half of all Lexus sales are RX-derived when there are 9 Lexus models. It’s also time to stick a fork in the Scion brand; Scion sales were down 52% to 57,961, even though this summer’s “Cash for Clunkers” buoyed sales of fuel-efficient cars.

ford Ford: Detroit’s dark knight managed to move 1,682,323 units in 2009, down 15.4% but still beating the industry average. Ford’s successes earned it a full percent of market share in 2009, which now stands at 15.5%. Ford is more truck-dependent than GM; about 63% of all Ford sales are trucks.

So, a big part of Ford’s success in 2009 can be contributed to it keeping its light truck sales up. Ford sold 1,020,128 trucks, which was down 17.5%, but keep in mind industry-wide truck sales were down 23.6%.

The best-selling vehicle in America was once again the Ford F-Series, with 413,625 units sold. The F-Series performed better relatively than other top selling nameplates, including the Honda Civic and Honda Accord (who said guzzling gas was passé?). The Ford Ranger also performed well, down in sales only 15.6%.

The Ford Fusion, Ford Escape, Ford Flex, Lincoln MKS and Volvo V50 all showed positive growth in 2009. The Fusion and Escape are now significant players and are vital to Ford’s bottom line; the two nameplates only totaled 353,715 sales.

For 2010, expect Ford to increase its market share further. Ford’s December sales were up an impressive 33.5%. Even though Ford is losing Volvo, the new Fiesta alone will probably absorb the entire division’s sales loss for 2010. The new Ford Edge, Ford Focus, Ford Explorer, Ford C-Max and supposed Mercury C-segment convertible/coupe will position the automaker perfectly for the expected upswing in 2010.

honda Honda: Honda sales were down 19.5% from 2009. Still, with 1,150,784 vehicles sold, Honda managed to surpass Chrysler in becoming the fourth largest automaker in America. Honda’s fourth-place ranking has more to do with Chrysler’s failures than Honda’s success; Honda’s market share only grew by a measly .2%.

The top three Honda models in sales for 2009 were the Accord (290,056 units),Civic (259,722) and CR-V (191,214). While the Accord and Civic numbers are impressive, both vehicles have performed below industry averages for 2009, down 22.2% and 23.5% respectively.

Honda’s dedicated hybrid, the Insight, is now officially a sales flop; only 20,572 were sold last year. The Civic Hybrid was also down a staggering 51.7%. Honda’s poor performance in the hybrid market nearly allowed Ford to surpass it as the second largest maker of hybrids in America. Not a single Honda or Acura vehicle posted positive growth for 2009, but the Honda CR-V held its own down only 3.1%, allowing it to remain the most popular crossover on the market. The Honda Odyssey remains America’s most popular minivan, as well.

Acura sales were poor, down 26.8%, but were in line with most other luxury makes. The Acura RL was virtually nonexistent, with only 2,043 sold. Acura’s TSX (-10.5%) , TL (-28.1%) and MDX (-31.3%) were the makes’ best sellers.

Chrysler Chrysler: Chrysler was one of the top 5 worst performing automakers in 2009, sharing a space with Mitsubishi, Suzuki and Lotus. Chrysler managed to move only 931,402 vehicles in 2009, down 35.9% from 2008. It was the first time Chrysler failed to move at least 1 million vehicles in America since 1962. Chrysler’s market share fell by 2.1%, the equivalent of 210,000 vehicle sales. Its market share is now in single-digit territory, at 8.9%.

Chrysler’s fleet mix stayed slanted towards trucks, with more than 75% of its vehicles sold being trucks or SUVs. Chrysler is still the third largest light truck maker, with 702,832 sold. I wish I could say this is a good thing, but since car sales surpassed truck sales in 2007, trucks have consistently performed worse than industry average, as buyers have moved to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Speaking of trucks: the Dodge Ram moved 177,268 units, down 28%, which means the Ram actually performed better than most of its full-size pickup rivals. The Dodge Nitro, Dodge Sprinter, Dodge Dakota, Jeep Commander, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot were all down nearly 45-60% for the year.

Chrysler’s cars performed worse than its trucks, down a staggering 42.6%. The Chrysler Sebring, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Dodge Caliber and Dodge Viper were collectively down about 60%. Chrysler’s strong suit was its minivans; 175,224 Caravans and Town & Countrys moved out the door (down 27.5%). The Jeep Wrangler did very well, with 82,044 sold (down only 3%). The Dodge Journey posted a positive growth of 14%, with sales of 53,826. The Dodge Challenger was also up 48%, to 25,852 units.

While other carmakers pulled out of the slump in December, Chrysler was down in that month about 3.7%. For 2010, expect Chrysler to lose another 0.5% to 1% of market share.

nissan Nissan: Nissan moved 770,103 vehicles in 2009; that’s down 19.1% from 2008. Nissan did, however, manage to increase market share to 7.4%. Car sales came in at a healthy 514,328 units (down 13.4%). Nissan’s most important vehicle, the Altima, was down 24.5%, to 203,568 units. That’s a pretty bad showing for a midsized sedan, even in this market. Nissan car sales were buoyed by the Maxima (+13.3%) and 370Z (+26.9%). The Versa and Rogue held their own, with sales of 82,906 and 77,222 respectively.

Nissan’s trucks sales faired far worse. Titan sales were down to 19,042 (-44.1%), the Frontier to 28,415 (-36.9%), and the Pathfinder to 18,341 (-45.3%). The Nissan Rogue posted the only positive numbers, up 5.7%.

No wonder that Nissan plans on ditching its Quest minivan; sales only amounted to 8,437 units.

Infiniti moved 81,089 vehicles in 2009, down 28.2% from 2009.

hyundai Hyundai/Kia: Hyundai, and its wholly-owned subsidiary Kia, had a stellar year on all counts. Hyundai Group moved 735, 127 vehicles, up 9% from 2008. Hyundai was the only major automaker to post sales growth for the year. Hyundai increased market share by 2%, which now stands at 7.1%.

Hyundai’s Accent was up 25%, the Santa Fe 11.6%, the Elantra 8% and Sonata 2%. Genesis sales were up 354%, to end the year with 21,889 vehicles sold. Kia Sportage sales were up 23%, and Sedona sales up by just a percent. Kia’s overall sales increase can be attributed to its new entries, the Forte and the Soul. The Forte sold 26,328 units, and the Soul managed 31,621.

If Hyundai has a negative, it would be its trucks, which were down slightly from 2008. Hyundai managed to move only 15,411 Tuscons, and 10,210 of the Veracruz. Over at Kia, the Borrego has turned into such a sales flop (10,530 sold) that there is talk of disbanding the vehicle permanently. Hyundai’s full-sized cars performed poorly as well. Kia could only move 3,704 of its Amanti, and Hyundai Azera sales dropped 73.6%, selling only 3,808 units.

For 2010, Hyundai plans on introducing a new Accent, Elantra, Sonata, Tuscon, Kia Sportage and a Kia large sedan.

If Hyundai keeps this sales pace up, expect it to surpass Nissan, and maybe even Chrysler in 2010.

***Source: Sales data provided by the OEM. Market share/ vehicle segment analysis provided by via The Wall Street Journal ***

Images by: Andrew Walensa