Winter weather chills U.S. auto sales

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Pickups and utility vehicles provided an uptick for U.S. auto dealers in February, even as many makers reported lower-than-expected results due to frigid temperatures and lackluster sales of cars.

Automakers sold 1.26 million cars and trucks last month. That was up 5.3 percent from a year ago, but down about 30,000 vehicles from what industry analysts expected.

“While sales were slightly off forecast, all signs report to continued strength in the industry,” said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez. “Weather certainly played a role, with the Northeast coming in a little bit more than anticipated.”

Many consumers who did brave the winter weather drove off with a new pickup or sport utility vehicle.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and others highlighted increases in pickup and utility vehicle as their main drivers for sales last month, as the sectors continued to outperform the industry by increasing 11.8 percent in February. Car sales fell 1.4 percent.

Leading the way in February sales were Toyota, up 13.3 percent compared to a year ago, thanks to truck sales increasing 20.2 percent; and FCA US increasing 5.6 percent, led by its Jeep and Ram brands. Honda Motor Co., GM and Nissan Motor Co. all reported 5 percent or less increases in sales last month compared to February 2014.

Ford declined 2 percent due to falling car and utility sales. It reported sales of 180,383 cars and trucks in February. The Dearborn automaker’s car sales decreased 8.1 percent and utility vehicles were down 2.3 percent. Truck sales were up 4 percent.

“We would like to perform better in cars,” said Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, on Tuesday during a call with analysts and news media.

LaNeve added that F-150 inventories remain tight due to its Kansas City Assembly plant — the second plant building the new F-150 — not producing the new full-size pickup until later this month. About 21 percent of the automaker’s retail F-150 sales were the 2015 model, for which he described customer demand as “exceptional.”

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst, cautioned that if Ford continues as it has in recent months, its problems might be bigger than just F-150 availability.

“We need to watch what’s happening at Ford,” she said. “Yes, we gave them a pass last year on the transition between the new and old truck. … But you have to look across the rest of their product line. There’s some weakness there as well.”

Ford’s crosstown rivals both reported significant gains in pickup and SUV sales.

Jeep and Ram led the way for Fiat Chrysler, up 21.1 percent and 11.5 percent, respectively. Jeep has set a sales record in each month dating back to November 2013.

GM reports pickup sales increased 37 percent and large SUVs were up 66 percent.

Larry Dominique, executive vice president, said sales of pickups and SUVs are expected to continue strong this year, helping automakers’ bottom lines.

“Those brands that have a higher percentage of trucks and SUVs benefited from a transaction price increase greater than the brands that are more car-centric,” he said. “Overall, revenue margin is quite strong right now.”

One thing that some thought could negatively impact February or March sales was the labor disputes that have slowed shipments at dozens of ports on the West Coast. However, industry experts say there was no significant evidence that the situation hurt sales.

In February, Honda, Nissan and Toyota were cutting back production or adjusting overtime at several facilities in North America. Others, including the Detroit automakers, reported no “significant” problems in shipping or production due to labor disputes.

Low interest rates, falling unemployment and easing credit are expected to continue driving U.S. sales to about 16.9 million to 17 million in 2015 — marking the highest sales since at least 2005.

“The economic fundamentals continue to be supportive of healthy car sales,” said AutoTrader’s Krebs. “Credit is still widely available … and I would suspect that any lost sales we saw in February would be made up in the spring months.”

U.S. auto sales are up 9.2 percent to 2.4 million cars and trucks sold through the first two months of the year compared to the same time period a year ago. Detroit automakers have sold 1.1 million vehicles, up nearly 9 percent from 2014.

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