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January auto sales weather winter storm; level with ’15

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News
Jeep posted a 15 percent increase, making it the best January sales ever for the SUV brand and its 28th consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains.

Winter storms across much of the central and eastern United States didn’t stop consumers from driving off dealer lots in new vehicles.

Car and truck sales in the United States last month were essentially level (down 0.3 percent) compared to January 2015, with 1.15 million vehicles sold, according to AutoData Corp. Industry analysts expected U.S. sales to be down as much as 4.5 percent.

“The American market overcame a variety of headwinds, including a literal headwind in the form of a major East Coast blizzard, to post positive results in January, outperforming our expectations,” said Kelley Blue Book Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst.

Officials are downplaying the stagnant growth. The sales pace made for one of the three strongest-ever Januarys, which is typically one of the slowest sales month of the year.

The Detroit automakers reported mixed results: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV sales were up 6.9 percent compared to a year ago, with 155,037 cars and trucks sold; General Motors Co. was up 0.5 percent to 203,745; Ford Motor Co. was down 2.8 percent to 172,478.

Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Corp., Mercedes-Benz AG and Subaru all reported sales gains of less than 2 percent. Kia Motors Corp. was level, while most others were down less than 5 percent. Volkswagen AG continued to struggle, with sales crashing 8.9 percent in the wake of the company’s diesel emissions scandal and dependence on cars.

Utility vehicles — pickups, crossovers and SUVs — led the industry for nearly all major automakers, while car sales declined. Truck sales, which include SUVs and some crossovers, totaled 661,812 in January, up 6.5 percent from a year ago. Car sales declined 8.2 percent to 486,245.

“It’s a new year but it’s the same old story: The automotive market keeps surprising us with its strength … and it’s the same old drivers of the so-called ‘car market,’” said Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs. “The companies with portfolios heavy in those models did well in January.”

In 2015, car sales declined 2.2 percent, while truck sales surged 13.1 percent to represent 55.7 percent of the record 17.47 million vehicles sold last year.

The release of January sales figures came a week after Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne announced plans to discontinue its U.S.-built Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart sedans in the coming years to focus on hot-selling pickups and SUVs. The automaker’s total car sales in January were down 24.4 percent, while truck sales increased 18.8 percent.

Marchionne called the declining consumer demand for cars a “permanent shift” for the global auto industry, although some have speculated it leaves the company open to long-term risks in the event of an economic downturn and spike in gas prices — times when consumers typically move to smaller vehicles.

FCA US in January was led by sales of its Jeep, Dodge and Ram Truck brands, with Dodge leading the pack with a 19.1 percent increase. Jeep posted a 14.6 percent increase, while Ram was up 5.2 percent. The Fiat and Chrysler brands were down 20.3 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively.

“Mother Nature was no match for our Jeep brand last month as we recorded our best January Jeep sales ever,” said Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales. “Overall, FCA US achieved its best January sales in nine years and our 70th-consecutive month of year-over-year sales increases.”

Ford Vice President of U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service Mark LaNeve on Tuesday said the Dearborn automaker is continuing to produce to demand, and a 12.2 percent in its car sales last month will not make it shift its production plans.

“We’ve been building to demand for the past year,” he told financial analysts and news media during a conference call. “There’s nothing that we saw in January that would send up any flags that would get us off of our plan.”

The company declined to comment if Ford expects overall car sales for the Dearborn automaker to be down in 2016; sales of the company’s cars were down 3.8 percent in 2015.

The Ford brand declined 3 percent in January but had its best start for SUVs since 2004 — totaling 50,212 sales last month, a 3 percent increase versus a year ago. Ford’s luxury Lincoln brand saw sales increase 8.4 percent to more than 7,100 vehicles sold.

There were some bright spots for cars. Combined sales of Buick’s passenger cars were up 73 percent from a year ago, and Chevrolet retail car sales were up 25 percent.

“GM began 2016 in very strong competitive position,” said Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. vice president of sales operations, in a statement. “We built on that momentum in January, with Chevrolet, Buick and GMC outperforming the retail industry by a wide margin. In fact, Chevrolet continues to grow faster than any other full-line brand.”

Buick, up 45.5 percent, and GMC with a 3.5 percent increase led GM’s sales gains, while Cadillac and Chevrolet brands were down 8 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively.

New vehicle sales in the U.S. this year are expected to top the record 17.47 million vehicles sold in 2015. Forecasts for the year range from roughly 17.5 million to 18 million. If the sales pace from January continued throughout the year, sales would hit nearly 17.6 million.

“The industry is doing a lot of things right,” said senior analyst Jeremy Acevedo. “It’s a strong start to what really should be another record-breaking year.”

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