U.S. auto sales tumbled 2.8 percent in February

The Detroit News
Subaru bucked the downward trend with a February sales increase of 3.9 percent over a year ago. Sales of its new Forester climbed 12.8 percent.

New-vehicle sales for February failed to meet forecasts, with sales of hot sport-utilities even starting to cool.

Overall sales for the month tumbled 2.8 percent from the same month a year ago, according to released Friday estimates from the online retail site Edmunds.com. Sales came in at 1.26 million for an annualized industry sales rate slowed to 16.6 million, according to Edmunds, for the worst reading in 18 months.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's 11-month sales growth streak ended last month when U.S. deliveries slipped 2 percent from last February. Its Jeep brand, which has been a sales leader for the company, posted a 4 percent decrease from the same month last year.

General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. have switched to a quarterly reporting system and did not report sales figures Friday, but Edmunds estimated GM sales fell 5.8 percent and Ford fell 6.4 percent. Both of those were worse than forecast.

Smaller tax returns and higher car prices and interest rates contributed to the slowdown, said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. And although her company expects a drop in sales for the year, Brinley said "there remains the expectation that the slower pace in 2019 sales should support a profitable and strong automotive industry."

Jeep's losses come despite a February record for the Cherokee, up 31 percent last month. Sales of the Wrangler fell 6 percent while the Renegade was down 28 percent.

The Ram truck brand was the only Fiat Chrysler brand to post an increase last month, up 24 percent on a 20 percent gain for Ram's new pickups. 

Sales for Chrysler dipped 36 percent with all of the brand's nameplates posting sales decreases for the month, including a 32 percent drop in sales for the Pacifica minivan. The Dodge brand slipped 8 percent, Fiat fell 50 percent and Alfa Romeo dropped 13 percent.

Subaru of America bucked the downward trend with a monthly sales increase of 3.9 percent over a year ago. Its all-new Forester led the way with a 12.8 percent surge. The automaker's best February ever continued 87 consecutive months of yearly, month-over-month growth. 

Hyundai Motor America also had a good month with a sales increase of 2 percent and its best February SUV sales ever, which included a 12 percent jump for the Tucson. Luxury-maker Jaguar Land Rover also was immune to the downturn, with a sales gain of 29 percent. BMW had a slight uptick of 0.2 percent.

But losses dominated the narrative.

Toyota Motor North America reported a 5.2 percent downturn for the month. Its luxury Lexus brand was up 4.4. percent, but a 6.3 percent drop at the Toyota division pulled the numbers down.

Nissan Group sales were down 12 percent for the month. Its Nissan division was off 11.4 percent, while the Infiniti brand was down 17.3 percent.

American Honda's overall sales were down 0.4 percent from a year ago, even though its Acura brand was up 11.3 percent. Acura's RDX, MDX and HR-V crossovers all had double-digit increases, with the RDX midsize crossover up nearly 32 percent.

Volkswagen of America was down 3.6 percent for the month.

Although sales were down, the estimated average transaction price for a new vehicle in February climbed to $36,590, according to analysts at Kelley Blue Book. That was $993 higher  (2.8 percent) from the previous February.

Gaining most year-over-year, Ford Motor Co.’s average prices were up more than 5 percent, with both Ford and Lincoln up by 5 percent. A refreshed Edge and its new ST trim helped pull the model’s average up 5 percent.

Interest rates in February hit their highest level in a decade, according to Edmunds analysts: The average interest rate on a new-car loan was 6.26 percent in February, compared to 5.19 percent last year and 4.56 percent five years ago. Higher rates combined with higher prices drove the average monthly payment to $556, up from $527 a year ago.

“Shopping conditions are pretty unfavorable for consumers across the board, and even those with good credit are having trouble finding compelling finance offers,” Jeremy Acevedo, Edmunds’ manager of industry analysis, said in a statement. “As rising vehicle costs and interest rates continue to compromise affordability, more shoppers might find themselves priced out of the new vehicle market.”