Sales of trucks and SUVs continued their upward run last month in the U.S., but that didn’t make up for the continuing slump for sedans. Overall sales fell 1.6 percent in March compared to a year ago, marking the third straight month of slipping sales as automakers come off a record 2016.
Analysts incorrectly forecast that March sales results would show a slight uptick as a result of aggressive sales incentives offered by carmakers. Instead, they sold 1,555,859 cars and trucks, compared to the 1,581,764 sold in March 2016, according to Autodata Corp. Year-to-date sales are down 1.5 percent compared to the first quarter of 2017.
Industry experts on Monday described the latest numbers as an indication that rising sales figures enjoyed by automakers in recent years may have peaked.
“We’ve been saying for some time that U.S. sales have plateaued at a very high level,” said Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for Autotrader. “March seems to prove that out. Sales are coming in strong, but softening as we anticipated. But, again, it’s still at a very high level.”
Stephanie Brinley, senior automotive analyst, IHS Markit, says the introduction of new SUVs throughout the year should keep sales strong: “These vehicles will continue to drive the story of increasing popularity of utility vehicles and maintain pressure on car sales.”
Sales of trucks and SUV sales did drive overall increases for some automakers in March, including General Motors Co., which had a 1.5 percent overall boost in March.
GM sales totaled 256,007 vehicles in March, coming in under forecast. But that figure was still higher than the same month a year ago, and an increase over February 2017.
GM’s Buick sales jumped 15.1 percent compared to a year ago, with 20,957 sold. Chevrolet brand sales slipped 2.3 percent, with Impala and Malibu sales off by 23 percent and 36 percent, respectively. GMC sales grew by 12 percent, and Cadillac sales dropped 1.5 percent compared to a year ago.
Ford Motor Co., sold 234,895 vehicles, a 7.2 percent dip compared to March a year ago. It moved 81,330 F-Series pickups off lots in March, a 10 percent leap over last year, and nearly 28,000 more than all Ford-brand cars combined last month. Overall, Ford’s car sales slid 24.2 percent.
Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said in a call with analysts and reporters Monday that sliding car sales are happening industrywide, but it might not be bad for Ford’s revenue.
“You could argue (it is) structural,” he said. “We’ve been seeing it for six years... It’s a very favorable phenomenon ... SUVs and trucks transact at a much higher average transaction price, so that’s really good for the top line revenue number.”
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV reported it sold 190,254 vehicles in March, a 4.6 percent drop for the month.
Overall, the Dodge brand sales increased 9.7 percent, while the Ram truck brand was up 6 percent. Jeep’s overall sales for the month were down 11 percent from the previous year. Chrysler sales dropped by 33.1 percent, while Fiat sales were down 5.3 percent.
Despite a spate of negative headlines this year regarding emissions, Volkswagen Group of America reported a 2.6 percent sales increase for March over 2016.
Toyota Motor North America Inc. and American Honda Motor Co. saw truck sales increase while overall sales slid due to sluggish car sales.
Light truck and SUV sales were a bright spot for Toyota in a month where overall numbers were down from the previous year. The company’s overall sales for March dipped 2.1 percent from 2016. A breakdown of the numbers show Toyota sales down 1.2 percent and Lexus sale down 7.5 percent.
Honda’s overall sales slipped .7 percent from the same month in 2016. Trucks and SUVs gained more than 12.6 percent from the previous year with 61,975 vehicles moving during the month — a record for March.
Nissan North America Inc. saw a 3.2 percent increase in sales. The company was largely boosted by a 25.6 percent jump in trucks and SUVs. Sales of the Nissan Rogue jumped 42.6 percent, with the automaker selling 39,512 of the compact SUVs.
Autotrader’s Krebs said March sales prove the sales plateau analysts had been predicting is real.
“We just don’t see an end in sight as consumers leave sedans for SUVs,” she said in a statement. “With inventories building and incentives rising, it is taking more effort and money to move vehicles, particularly cars. Going forward, automakers likely will look to cut production to manage both inventories and incentives.”