U.S. auto sales expected to rise modestly in 2015

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

New York – — Auto analysts said Tuesday U.S. sales will continue to rise in the next few years, but the pace of growth will slow further in 2015.

U.S. auto sales are on pace to rise 5 percent in 2014 to 16.4 million — the best performance since 2006 — after rising by nearly 8 percent in 2013. The consensus is “cautious optimism” as production and sales will grow far faster in Asia, while Europe and South America face significant economic concerns.

LMC Automotive senior vice president Jeff Schuster said at a Standard & Poors auto industry conference that it predicts sales will rise just 2 percent next year to 16.7 million — fueled by 100 new, refreshed and redesigned vehicles being introduced in 2015, including Ford’s new aluminum F-150.

LMC sees U.S. sales rising to 17 million by 2018. LMC predicts the market will rise to 17.5 million in 2020 — which would represent the highest ever U.S. auto sales. Auto sales were above 16 million between 1999 and 2007 — hitting a high of 17.4 million in 2000.

JD Power notes that U.S. consumer spending on new cars and trucks will break a record in 2014 — estimated at $407 billion — up from $376 billion in 2013 — as average transaction prices have risen dramatically to $30,000 this year — up from $26,560 in 2007. U.S. retail sales in 2014 expected to be 13.8 million vehicles is near an all-time record, with incentive spending up slightly in 2014 at $2,975 over 2013 when it was $2,834.

This year’s spending is more than the gross domestic product of Austria, said Joe Derkos, director of consulting and analytics at J.D. Power.

Automakers keep introducing new models. LMC says automakers will hike the number of U.S. models offered from 295 this year to 331 in 2018 — with 75 new nameplates expected through 2018 — along with 200 redesigns and 210 facelifts. As a result, the average number of vehicles sold per model will fall from 55,463 this year to 51,728 in 2018, LMC said. Biggest growth through 2018 will be in small luxury cars and small luxury SUVs.

But 2018 sales of 17 million will be more profitable than sales in 2006, since there will be fewer rental car and other fleet sales in 2018 than 2006, LMC says.

There are risks to future sales growth including the eventual rise of interest rates. S&P noted that some subprime auto lenders are offering more than 72-month repayment periods. Derkos said every 1 percentage point increase in interest rates could reduce auto sales by up to 300,000 vehicles, or $8 billion in lost revenue. For buyers with good credit, the average interest rate paid on 72-month car loans has fallen from 7.3 percent in 2007 to 3.8 percent this year. But low interest rates and longer loans means some buyers have been more willing to buy more expensive cars.

Derkos noted that a $16,000 entry level compact car would cost about $469 a month at 2 percent interest for a three-year-loan, while a $32,000 compact luxury car would cost $477 a month over six years at the same 2 percent interest rate. In 2014, the number of new vehicles financed for at least 72 months is expected to be about 32 percent — up from 30 percent last year — and up from 22 percent in 2009.

After a weaker than expected start to sales this year, sales were stronger than expected in spring and summer and are expected to finish strong. Low gas prices, pent-up demand and stronger employment numbers are all fueling growth. Satyam Panday, an S&P economist, said continued job growth is key to auto sales. S&P expects “robust auto sales to continue for the rest of the year and into 2015.”

Big winners this year: Mitsubishi — expected to be up nearly 20 percent for the year — followed by Subaru, Nissan, Fiat Chrysler and Mazda — all up more than 10 percent this year. Toyota Motor Corp. and Hyundai and Kia — controlled by the same Korean company — are the only other major automakers — expected to outpace the industry, Schuster said. Fiat Chrysler’strong sales performance has been one of the continuing “surprises,” Schuster said.

General Motors Co. is expected to come close to the industry’s 5 percent gain. Ford is expected to be down slightly for the year, while Volkswagen AG has had the worst performance of any major automaker in the United States this year.

Non-luxury SUVs are up 1.2 percentage points of market share to 28.2 percent, while large cars are down. Luxury cars have boosted market share by 0.1 percentage points to 12.2 percent.

But in the next few years, Asia will outstrip North America and other regions for production growth — rising from 45 million this year to 60.1 million in 2020.

By 2020, North American production will rise to 19.2 million — up from 16.8 million this year. Of North American production capacity, 25 percent will be in Mexico by 2020 — up from 17 percent today, while U.S. production capacity will account for 64 percent of North America, down from 70 percent today. Many major automakers are currently building new auto plants in Mexico.