Auto sales drive to record high in November

Melissa Burden, and Michael Wayland

U.S. auto sales last month increased 3.7 percent from a year ago to 1.38 million — shattering a record for the month that was set in November 2001. The sales were aided by two extra selling days from a year ago and fueled by Black Friday promotions And while there was concern about shaken consumer confidence after Donald Trump was elected president earlier in the month, car buyers apparently did not hold back.

Bob Carter, senior vice president of operations for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. told journalists in Detroit that questions about a short-term impact on consumer confidence after the contentious election appeared to be answered by strong November results for Toyota and others in the industry. He expects December will also be a good month, though it may fall just a bit from a year ago.

“We’re very optimistic of what the economy is going to provide the auto industry over the next 24 or 36 months,” he said.

Analysts and auto executives say the month was strong: competition for buyers was aggressive, incentives were up and there was plenty of stock on new-car lots. SUVs and trucks remained hot sellers, as consumer interest in cars continues to wane.

Sales of light passenger trucks, including crossovers and SUVs, increased 8.5 percent last month, while passenger car sales decreased 3.1 percent. Trucks accounted for 58.8 percent of all vehicles sold.

“This was a solid month of retail gains across the industry,” Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said in a call with reporters Thursday.

Toyota reported a 4.3-percent increase in November sales compared to a year ago; it sold 197,645 vehicles.

General Motors Co. and Ford Motors Co. reported healthy November sales increases, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV experienced a 14.3 percent decline.

All of Fiat Chrysler’s brands besides Ram Truck, which was up 12 percent, reported double-digit losses for last month compared to November 2015.

The Chrysler brand’s 46.8 percent decline was the largest drop for Fiat Chrysler, followed by Alfa Romeo, down 32.4 percent; Dodge declining 20.7 percent; Fiat down 14.5 percent; and Jeep off 12.3 percent.

Heading into the final month of the year, Fiat Chrysler has sold more than 2 million vehicles, up 1 percent compared to the same time period a year ago.

GM said its November sales jumped 10.2 percent to about 252,600 vehicles, as all four of its brands posted strong gains over November 2015.

The Detroit automaker said its Buick brand sales increased 16.1 percent, while Chevrolet sales were up 8.1 percent, Cadillac sales jumped 14.5 percent and GMC sales rose 14.1 percent.

Ford also posted an increase of 5.1 percent — beating analyst expectations that the Dearborn-based automaker’s sales would be flat with November 2015. Mark LaNeve, Ford vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, told analysts and reporters in a call Thursday that the results came in slightly stronger than the company’s internal plan and were aided by the best F-Series sales in 15 years and the launch of the new Super Duty.

Sales for the Ford brand last month were up 4.5 percent compared to a year ago, while Lincoln experienced a 19.1 percent jump thanks to sales of the MKC, MKX and its all-new Continental that LaNeve said is only on dealer lots for an average of 13 days. “We’re delighted with the start Continental has had and what it’s doing for the brand,” he said.

Heading into December, Ford has sold more than 2.36 million vehicles this year, including 196,441 cars and trucks in November. LaNeve expects December will be a strong month for the automaker.

Analysts are mixed on whether 2016 sales will reach last year’s record of 17.47 million. Some believe sales will fall just short, while others are more optimistic that with December’s historically strong sales month, sales will slightly surpass last year’s record.

Kelley Blue Book’s Fleming gives it about a 40 percent chance. “Basically, if December comes in flat year-over-year, this will be a new record year,” he said. “But it’s going to be a challenge. There’s one fewer selling day and last December was incredibly strong.”

Kelley Blue Book and Ford are predicting slightly fewer sales next year than this year because carmakers may decide to pull back on buyer incentives and cut some production. GM remains fairly bullish on next year, though it has not given a prediction.

“All economic indicators show significantly improved optimism about the U.S. economy including consumer and business sentiment, which continue to drive a very healthy U.S. auto industry,” Mustafa Mohatarem, GM’s chief economist, said in a statement. “We believe the U.S. auto industry is well-positioned for sales to continue at or near record levels into 2017.”

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