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American buyers continue to abandon the trusty car

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
FCA, Ford logos

Even Black Friday sales couldn't save the sedan.

Automakers largely reported that cars dragged on U.S. sales last month, in some cases despite booming SUV and truck sales. Meantime, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which has been phasing cars out of its lineup, reaped the rewards in November.

The November sales results beat some analyst expectations, as most automakers reported smaller sales slips than expected. But U.S. consumers continue to flee sedans in droves, a trend guiding executive decision-making at the highest levels. Even Toyota's typically best-selling Camry sedan was off nearly 30 percent compared to a year ago.

"The market continues to abandon cars, with no end in sight," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "Automakers have slowed or stopped production, so inventory is down, and buyers are mostly looking at trucks and SUVs.

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"A few models have somewhat stabilized in recent months, but generally speaking cars — and brands that depend heavily on cars — don’t have a good story to tell. Every time we think we’ve hit the bottom in car market share another month passes with trucks and SUVs gaining while cars lose."

Fiat Chrysler reported it sold 17 percent more vehicles last month compared to the same month a year ago, thanks to Jeep and Ram sales. Overall, the automaker moved 181,310 units in November. Ram brand sales rose 44 percent to a record 57,970 vehicles, FCA reported. Jeep sales were up 12 percent, and the brand posted a retail sales record of 65,588 vehicles.

"Our dealers saw steady customer traffic throughout the month and especially during the Thanksgiving weekend," said Reid Bigland, FCA's head of U.S. sales. "We were also honored when Motor Trend named the Jeep Wrangler as the 2019 SUV of the Year and the Ram 1500 as the 2019 Truck of the Year. The awards underscore the hard work our dealers and employees have done to make both of these vehicles a success."

Meantime, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor North America all saw U.S. sales fall in November when compared to the same month a year ago. Both automakers reported double-digit drops in car sales. Ford truck and SUV sales were off 2.3 and 4.9 percent, respectively. The automaker's car sales plummeted 19.5 percent last month; Ford moved 196,303 total units in November.

The automaker noted its F-Series truck sales have topped 70,000 units in the U.S. for nine months this year, continually boosting Ford's average transaction prices. The automakers average price jumped $1,600 in November to $37,000. Compare that to the industry average $33,400, which was up $780, according to Ford. 

Kelley Blue Book estimated that average transaction price for light vehicles in the U.S. was $36,978 in November 2018, up 2 percent compared to a year ago.

"F-Series marked a record nine straight months topping the 70,000 truck mark, a consistent performance by a high-volume, high-margin product unmatched in the industry," said Ford sales chief Mark LaNeve in a statement.

Toyota's car sales were down enough to drag down booming SUV and truck sales. The automaker reported a 15-percent increase in SUV sales and a 10.6-percent increase in truck sales for its best-ever month of selling trucks — but that was overshadowed by car sales that were off 18 percent.

Nissan Group reported overall sales dropped 19 percent in November, with car sales down 34 percent, and truck sales off 13.1 percent.

While automakers continue to battle headwinds of dwindling sedan sales and an overall industry sales plateau, U.S. consumers got a slight break in the 11th month of the year, according to analysis company Edmunds. Interest rates dipped slightly in November.

Rising interest rates on vehicle loans have been cause for concern in recent months. The interest break was due in part to sales deals around Black Friday.

"Car buyers got a bit of relief this month thanks to Black Friday deals, but an average interest rate above 6 percent is still a tough pill to swallow, especially for shoppers who might be coming back to the market after a number of years," said Jeremy Acevedo, Edmunds’ manager of industry analysis. "Shoppers who purchased a car in November five years ago could feasibly be facing a 47 percent increase in their interest rate this November."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau