Automakers sold 1.33 million vehicles in the U.S. in February, down slightly from the same month a year ago, as consumers continued to shift away from buying cars in favor of trucks and SUVs.
Sales fell 1.1 percent last month compared to the same month a year ago, according to Autodata Corp. And even though sales so far this year continue at a near-record pace, some analysts see trouble ahead as automakers prime the market with bigger incentives to move high inventories of unsold vehicles.
Trucks and SUV sales drove increases for some automakers in February including General Motors Co., American Honda Motor Co. Inc. and Nissan North America Inc. Volkswagen Group also posted an increase, but slowing car sales hurt year-over-year comparisons for Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Kia Motors America.
GM sold 237,232 vehicles in February, up 4.1 percent over last year, aided by strong truck and SUV sales. Ford sales totaled 207,464, down 4 percent. And Fiat Chrysler sales totaled 168,326 vehicles, down 10.1 percent from a year ago. Fiat Chrysler has discontinued a number of small cars, and its Jeep comparisons are difficult because of product changes and retooling at several manufacturing facilities.
Passenger cars accounted for 37.7 percent industry sales last month, down from 42.4 percent a year ago. Truck sales accounted for 62.3 percent of industry sales in February, compared to 57.6 percent a year ago.
Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said passenger car sales slipped 24 percent in February, which contributed to its 4 percent dip in sales across the company.
“We have seen a structural shift in consumer buying behavior going back to 2010,” he said in call with analysts and reporters Wednesday. In 2010, 53 percent of the company’s sales were passenger cars. “All the competition is seeing it. It’s an industry phenomenon.”
GM said car sales slid 22.7 percent, while Nissan car sales fell 12 percent and Toyota car sales dropped 17.2 percent last month compared to February 2016. Honda also had falling car sales, down 6.9 percent for the month.
Ford said it had a record February for SUV sales, moving 68,820 off of dealership lots; Ford F-Series sales increased 8.7 percent, with 65,956 pickups sold.
Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds executive director of industry analysis, said there is still room for crossover and small SUV sales to grow, though carmakers are likely to run into more headwinds in moving midsize sedans off their lots.
“(Inventory) being so high is a bit of a red flag for the industry,” she said. “Even though we’re at a record pace — we’re still very close to where we were in 2016 — there are still some unhealthy signs that make it different.”
Edmunds.com says the “days to turn,” or days a vehicle sits on a dealer lot until a sale reached 74 days in February, the highest for any month since July 2009.
GM said it had inventory of 900,681 vehicles or 91 days supply at the end of February, compared to 878,590 or 108 days supply at the end of January. Ford inventory stocks totaled 682,100 or 79 days at the end of February, compared to 684,906 vehicles or 95 days at the end of January. Days supply of cars at Ford fell from 97 days at the end of January to 74 at the end of February.
GM would not disclose its total days supply on cars but said it was more than 100 at the end of February and is trending down. The Detroit automaker has cut shifts at some car plants and also will take other down production weeks to help reduce inventory levels.
Caldwell said she expects more incentives on sedans through March.
Ford saw Focus sales plummet by 31.8 percent to 12,691 in February. Fusion sales dropped 35 percent to 16,512. Meanwhile, Escape sales increased 15.9 percent, and Expedition sales jumped 48.2 percent, leading a record February for Ford SUVs, with 68,820 sold.
LaNeve said the F-Series had its best February sales performance in 13 years, and the fourth-best February in the truck’s history. The company also saw the average transaction price for the F-Series increase by $3,600, he said.
“Our overall incentive spend on F-Series was down,” LaNeve said. “So, we’re very pleased with our strong full-size truck performance in the face of such escalation from a key competitor.”
GM’s sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup rose 17.1 percent to 50,504, and sales of the GMC Sierra jumped 15.9 percent from February 2016. The Detroit automaker said its pickup truck average sales prices after incentives rose by about $600 year-over-year and the company said its incentive spending overall was flat compared to a year ago. But it did advertise big deals for select pickups during its Truck Month promotion in February.
AIS Rebates, an Ann Arbor company that tracks incentives, said incentives were high on cars last month such as the Nissan Altima at up to about $5,000 off. GM offered zero percent financing and $10,000 off some Sierra and Silverado models.
“It is taking more effort and more money to move the metal this year than last,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, in a call with reporters Wednesday.