Car prices rise in mediocre month for sales

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
Detroit automakers

It was a tough month for auto sales as the January doldrums fueled significant sales decreases at Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV in a month when the industry overall eked up 1 percent. But the cars and trucks that did leave dealer lots sold at a higher average price than the same period a year ago.

Ford reported a 6.3 percent decline in January deliveries, but said its average transaction prices jumped $2,000 even as incentives fell $200. Vehicles from Ford’s Lincoln brand sold for an average of $8,700 more, compared to the same month last year.

Fiat Chrysler sales fell 12.8 percent, the automaker’s 17th-straight month of declines, while its average sales price rose about $1,300 according to Kelley Blue Book.

General Motors Co. was the only Detroit automaker to sell more vehicles in the first month of 2018, up 1.3 percent. The average price of a GM car or truck was up $1,270; the average Cadillac sold for $2,300 more.

It was the same story elsewhere in the industry.

Average transaction prices were on the rise in January, according to Kelley Blue Book, which reported the average price of a light vehicle in the U.S. last month was $36,270, a 4 percent increase over the same period last year. The bump was driven largely by the consumer shift away from cars to more expensive trucks and SUVs. But even the price of mid-size cars rose in January, up 3 percent on gains for the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, according to Kelley Blue Book’s report.

Ford and Fiat Chrysler both struggled to move those profitable SUVs and pickup trucks in January, however. Ford’s SUV sales were down nearly 6 percent overall and Fiat Chrysler’s Ram pickup sales down 13 percent.

While GM managed to post a modest overall sales increase in January, its Buick and Chevrolet brands were the only two to post increases – up 4 percent and 5 percent respectively. Several Chevrolet nameplates posted best-ever January sales, including the Equinox, Traverse and Trax. The Chevrolet Bolt EV also posted a gain of 1.3 percent in January.

Despite the hike in the average price of a Cadillac, sales of that brand fell nearly 4 percent.

“General Motors has started the year off right thanks to strong sales in Chevrolet and Buick,” Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said in a statement. “We are sure GM would like to see Cadillac get back to the plus side, but the Buick Enclave outsold the Escalade and Escalade ESV combined.”

While GM’s crossovers kept the Detroit automaker ahead in January, Ford’s biggest vehicles posted some of the strongest sales in over a decade. But that failed to offer the bump Ford needed.

“January marked another dismal month for Ford,” Michelle Krebs, an analyst with AutoTrader, said in a statement. “Ford cars continue to get clobbered in the marketplace. Lincoln had a poor month as well. The only bright spots are the new Lincoln Navigator and the F-Series.”

Ford said the F-Series had its best January since 2004 last month. The new Lincoln Navigator also had its strongest sales in a decade, riding the redesign that launched in 2017.

Ford Focus sales fell 31 percent compared to the same month a year ago, while Fusion sales dove 33 percent. The company sold 500 EcoSport compact SUVs last month, which was the first month they were available in the U.S.

Sales for all Ford SUVs were down 5.9 percent overall. Truck sales grew 2.2 percent. Ford also saw a 12 percent drop in fleet sales in January.

Jeep continues to be the bright spot for Fiat Chrysler. It was the only brand from the automaker to post a gain in January, up 2.2 percent on a good month for the Cherokee, Wrangler and Compass.

The Dodge brand fell 31 percent in January while Ram fell 16 percent, but Fiat Chrysler is blaming its stark drop in January mostly on a 50 percent reduction in fleet sales. While the automaker was down 13 percent overall, retail sales were up 2 percent.

“It’s important to look beyond the headlines when evaluating FCA sales,” Lindland said. “They, like other manufacturers, are pulling back on daily rental fleet-sales, so while some numbers are down, retail is up, which means the quality of their sales is improved.”

Honda was among the laggards in January, posting a 1.7 percent decrease on slow months for the Accord sedan, down 9.5 percent, and the CR-V crossover, down nearly 17 percent.

Meanwhile, Toyota North America reported a 16.8 percent increase in January sales compared to the same month a year ago. And Subaru of America reported its best January ever, up 1.1 percent over the same month last year with record months for the Crosstrek and Outback.

Toyota also had its best-ever January sales for light trucks, and saw Camry sales climb 21.3 percent as U.S. consumers turn away from almost every other sedan on the market.

Toyota sold 26,655 RAV4 SUVs last month, a 20.3 percent increase. The company saw sales of the Tacoma and Tundra pickup trucks grow 33.6 percent and 15.3 percent, respectively.

“We are off to a great start with strong customer demand for light trucks, including RAV4, Highlander and 4Runner, setting best-ever records for January,” said Jack Hollis, group vice president and general manager, Toyota division. “We’re encouraged by the strength of the market and the momentum we have with a full calendar year of the all-new Camry, followed by the launch of the all-new Avalon in the spring.”

Detroit News auto reporter Ian Thibodeau contributed