Automakers battered in February as US car sales drop

An employee works on the doors for a Mercedes-Benz C-Class at the Mercedes-Benz US International factory in Vance, Alabama, on June 8, 2018.
An employee works on the doors for a Mercedes-Benz C-Class at the Mercedes-Benz US International factory in Vance, Alabama, on June 8, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

CHICAGO (AFP)- Most automakers were battered in February as American consumers pulled back on new car purchases, a continued hangover from the brisk sales pace last year, according to data released on Thursday (March 1).

The three American auto giants reported sales declines: 6.9 per cent year-over-year for GM and Ford, and one per cent for Fiat Chrysler's US subsidiary.

Most other major car makers in the US market saw sales drop last month, but Toyota bucked the trend with a 4.5 per cent boost.

Total auto sales declined 2.4 per cent compared to February 2017, but dropped 12.7 per cent from January. The seasonally-adjusted annual sales pace dropped to 17.08 million units, compared to 17.45 million a year ago.

Analysts had predicted the slowdown, amid an increasing supply of lightly-used cars competing for consumers' spending, and rising interest rates. In addition, record sales in the past two years largely satisfied much of the pent-up demand for new vehicles left from the recession years.

Economist Charlie Chesbrough of the analytics firm Cox Automotive said the weakness "was not surprising," although the disappointing showing by the crossover and pickup segments was a surprise.


Sales were down for some very popular truck models - such as the Chevrolet Silverado (off 16.3 per cent) and Ram trucks (down 14 per cent) - suggesting consumers may be waiting for the newly redesigned versions that were announced earlier this year.

FCA US highlighted that its redesigned Ram 1500 truck will begin production in March, while Chevrolet's popular truck will go on sale in the fall.

Despite the weakening demand, automakers were offering fewer deals last month. The industry's average new car transaction price was two per cent higher than last year at US$35,444, according to Kelly Blue Book.

Even so, industry analysts remained optimistic that consumers will return to showrooms, even if sales do not match previous years' levels."January, February do not the whole year make. They are low selling months," cautioned analyst Michelle Krebs of Autotrader. "We may see some improvements from where we are now, in the spring." Consumer confidence remains strong and refunds will trickle in over the next few months.

In addition, the recently-passed tax cuts were taking effect, with consumers likely to see more money in their paychecks each month, analysts said.

While that could improve new car sales, analysts expected competition from used cars to become more formidable. Some 3.5 million vehicles leased during the boom of the last few years are expected back on the market, Ms Krebs said."Consumers who are on a budget may not need the brand-new technology. Maybe the three year-old one isn't much different than the (new) one on the market now," she said.

Adding to the pressure on new cars, interest rates for car loans went up in February, according to analytics firm Edmunds. Rates averaged 5.2 per cent compared to 4.9 per cent in 2017 - slightly raising monthly payments."Car shoppers tend to have tunnel vision when it comes to their monthly payments," said Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell.


The pressures weighing on consumers upended industry narrative that the popularity of trucks and SUVs is a bulwark against declines.

The oversized models could not save Ford or GM in February, but the Jeep brand was credited with minimising declines for Fiat Chrysler.

Toyota managed a sales bump year-over-year - due not only to its popular Rav4 sports utility (up 13.3 per cent), but also to robust sales of its Camry sedan (up 12.2 per cent).

Honda slipped five per cent, its Accord sedan struggling with a 15.8 per cent decline and its CR-V sports utility down 19 per cent.

Nissan was down 4.3 per cent. Its Rogue SUV - by far the highest-selling vehicle in the US for the Japanese manufacturer - was up 15 per cent, but still unable to buoy the company's overall numbers.

German automakers fared well. BMW rose 7.5 per cent, and Volkswagen gained six percent on the strength of SUV sales, including brand-new models, while Mercedes-Benz reported a record February with a 6.9 per cent increase.

"The luxury market is a little bit more insulated" from economic trends, Mr Chesbrough said. "Those buyers probably benefited most from tax reform."