March sales reflect who has fresh vehicles, who doesn’t

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. says it’s moving to quarterly U.S. sales reports to give better context to the numbers. But analysts say March’s monthly sales numbers from the Detroit Three suggest which companies have the freshest product.

The Detroit automaker’s March sales jumped 15.7 percent in the U.S. compared to a year ago when sales increased just more than 1 percent. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV saw a 13.6-percent increase overall, and sold roughly 3,300 more retail vehicles than Ford Motor Co. The Blue Oval’s sales increased 3.5 percent overall, driven mostly by fleet sales, a little more than half the 6 percent gain for the month.

The fact that Fiat Chrysler outsold Ford for a month could mean a lot — or very little, depending on what happens in coming months. Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said the Italian-American automaker has outsold Ford on a retail basis before, and results fluctuate month-to-month.

“We’re not going to blow our brains out on incentives on these products at the end of their life cycle and damage the brand health,” LaNeve said.

Industry analysts said Ford isn’t seeing the same sales boosts as its U.S. competition due largely to the Blue Oval’s aging lineup. Fiat Chrysler and GM both have newer vehicles in the crossover and utility segment than Ford, which plans to update its Edge SUV later this year, followed by the Escape and Explorer SUVs within two years. The company will also debut new Lincolns this year.

“March proved to be a lion for the domestic automakers, with double- and even triple-digit sales increases posted for redesigned SUVs like the Lincoln Navigator, Jeep Compass, and GMC Terrain, proving today’s buyers want fresh, new products,” Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue book, said in a statement. She said Jeep seems to be putting its portfolio woes behind with strong sales of its all-new Wrangler, Compass and Cherokee.

Ford still is ramping up production for the all-new Expedition and Navigator full-size SUVs, though LaNeve said the automaker might not be able to meet demand in 2018. Navigators sit on dealer lots an average of 10 days, compared to an average of 17 days for the Expedition. Most automakers like vehicles to have around 60 days’ supply.

Despite LaNeve’s implication that March’s results don’t tell the full story at Ford, the automaker said Tuesday it had no immediate plans to follow GM’s example and change how it reports sales figures.

Tuesday marked the last time GM will report monthly sales. The automaker said it would begin reporting its sales quarterly, just like its earnings, breaking an auto industry practice that has outlasted similar shifts in retailing, technology and other industries.

“Thirty days is not enough time to separate real sales trends from short-term fluctuations in a very dynamic, highly competitive market,” Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. vice president for sales operations, said in a statement regarding the sales change. “Reporting sales quarterly better aligns with our business, and the quality of information will make it easier to see how the business is performing.”

Said Ford’s LaNeve: “We’re going to assess what they’re doing. It’s interesting and a pretty significant development for the industry.” An FCA spokesman said the company does not have plans to change its sales reporting.

Warren Browne, president of industry consultancy WP Browne Consulting LLC and former GM executive in Europe, doesn’t expect any automaker to follow GM’s decision. The Detroit automaker will still analyze its monthly numbers, he said, because that’s how GM makes production decisions with suppliers and dealers.

“There’s no rationale for doing it quarterly,” Browne said. “The system operates on a monthly schedule. That’s how it breathes. GM is not going to change that system.”

GM ended its monthly reports on a high note. Retail sales were up 14 percent in March on strong performances from all of its brands. Buick sales jumped 28 percent, its best March sales result since 2004. Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC tallied 12.7 percent, 15.6 percent and 11.4 percent increases, respectively.

The March boost puts GM sales up 3.8 percent through the first three months of the year. The company has sold 715,264 vehicles in the U.S. this year, according to Autodata Corp.

FCA saw its retail sales jump 11 percent to 162,304 vehicles. Jeep brand sales shot up 44.7 percent compared to the same month a year ago. Ram brand sales slipped 13.3 percent as the company prepares to launch its all-new Ram 1500 this year.

Ford’s retail sales increased less than 1 percent compared to the same month a year ago, though overall sales increased 3.5 percent to 242,021 vehicles, according to Autodata Corp. Truck sales were up 6.7 percent, SUV sales up 7.5 percent, and car sales slid 8.1 percent. The Lincoln brand saw sales drop 2.1 percent compared to the same month a year ago.

Toyota reported a 3.5 percent increase in March compared to the same month a year ago. American Honda Motor Co. Inc. saw U.S. sales increase 3.8 percent compared to the same month a year ago. And Volkswagen AG’s new Atlas and redesigned Tiguan SUVs buoyed March sales for Germany’s largest automaker, even as car sales fell 31.4 percent for the month.

Silicon Valley electric vehicle-maker Tesla Inc. also reported Tuesday the company made 34,494 vehicles in the first quarter of the year. The company called the quarter Tesla’s most productive quarter in the company’s history. The company made 9,766 Model 3 sedans, which are pegged as Tesla’s “affordable vehicle.”

CEO Elon Musk has been pushing the company to hit production goals on the new Model 3, which have repeatedly been pushed back and delayed. Tesla made 2,020 of the total number of Model 3s in the last seven days, the company reported, missing its goal of producing 2,500 per week. The company delivered 29,980 vehicles in the first quarter of the year. Of those, 11,730 were Model S, 10,070 were Model X, and 8,180 were Model 3.

Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds executive director of industry analysis, said healthy first-quarter numbers indicate the industry is on solid ground, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we another banner year for new-car sales.

“Though March tends to be a prognosticator for the year as a whole,” she said, “if automakers remain disciplined with incentives and further rein in spending, we could potentially see sales start to tumble in the high-volume summer months when shoppers aren’t seeing the deals they are looking for.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau