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Ford sales down 4.9% in third quarter, beating industry decline of 10%

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. made progress in the third quarter in its bid to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic's toll, posting sales results Friday that beat analyst expectations as well as its crosstown competitors' results.

The Dearborn automaker sold 551,796 vehicles in the third quarter, a 4.9% decline from the same period a year ago.

Ford was buoyed by sales of pickups and SUVs, which now make up the vast majority of its sales in North America.

General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, meanwhile, reported Thursday that their new-vehicle sales were down 10% year-over-year in the three-month period that ended in September.

"Ford posted an excellent quarter for sales on the strength of pickup trucks and SUVs," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader. 

"The consumer has been remarkably resilient and Ford has had ample inventory to meet their needs. But Ford also made some progress on the fleet side as well this quarter, a part of the market that remains depressed across the industry."

Tesla Inc., meanwhile, reported Friday that its third-quarter sales jumped 44%, beating Wall Street expectations. The electric-auto maker has fared better than most during the pandemic.

While all three Detroit automakers, and many of their competitors, sold fewer vehicles compared to the third quarter of 2019, the results mark a turnaround from earlier this year. New-vehicle sales industrywide were hammered in the second quarter, following an eight-week North American production shutdown and amid widespread stay-at-home orders and an economic downturn.

Honda Motor Co. reported a 10% drop-off in the third quarter. Nissan Motor Co. reported a 32% sales slide. And Volkswagen of America's sales were down 7.6%.

But consumer demand, primarily among retail customers, has come back stronger than initially expected, and now a top concern is making sure dealers have enough inventory on their lots to meet it.

"Pandemic and recession be darned, Americans are out buying new wheels," said Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist at Cox Automotive Inc. "Upper-income consumers dominate the new vehicle market and this group has not been impacted severely by the recession, which is why vehicle sales have been rebounding from April so quickly."

Ford was buoyed by sales of pickups and SUVs, which now make up the vast majority of its sales in North America as it largely exits the sedan segment. The automaker's 311,751 truck sales marked an 0.6% year-over-year increase, while SUV sales of 191,803 were down just 0.7%.

The Blue Oval sold 249,997 F-Series and Ranger pickups in the third quarter.

Results were strongest among retail customers, with overall retail sales down only 2%; retail truck sales up 8.3%; and retail SUV sales down 3.4%.

"Despite the challenging pandemic environment, our retail unit sales were down only 2% and we had our best third quarter of pickup truck sales since 2005," Mark LaNeve, vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said in a statement.

He noted the strength of the automaker's flagship F-Series pickup truck franchise in September, with sales up 17.2%: "This is a testament to our winning product portfolio and the performance of our great dealers."

Retail sales of the F-Series were up 10.1%, which Ford reports is back above pre-coronavirus sales levels. And total sales of the F-Series, the company's profit engine, were up 3.5%, to 221,647.

In addition to F-Series and Ranger, sales of the EcoSport compact SUV, Explorer mid-size SUV and Expedition full-size SUV were all up year-over-year.

Ford's Lincoln brand was down 1.4% for the quarter.

Analysts took note of the strong performance of the Ford Explorer, up 73.9%, and the Lincoln Aviator, up to more than 6,100 sales compared to fewer than 1,900 in the third quarter of 2019.

"Like almost everything else in life right now, it looks like consumers are re-examining their needs," said Brian Moody, executive editor of Autotrader, noting that several sedans across the industry did well.

"It's a similar story at Ford, while many discontinued models are dragging the average down, consumers are discovering, and buying, truly good utility vehicles like the Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator."

For the year, Ford's sales of about 1.5 million vehicles are down 17.5%, from more than 1.8 million vehicles sold by this point in 2019.

Analysts expect sales to be down industrywide for the year. Cox forecasts 13.9 million new cars and truck sales this year, after five consecutive years of 17-million-plus.

And while third-quarter sales represented progress in the industry's recovery, analysts warn the fourth quarter could bring new challenges.

Among them: tight inventory. Inventory levels stood above 3.4 million in March, but had dropped below 2.2 million in September, according to Cox. And only 3% of vehicles on dealer lots are for the newest model year, compared to 25% this time last year.

Experts also warn that consumer sentiment could die down a bit amid the election and ongoing pandemic.

"The auto market enjoyed a strong and profitable third quarter, but with the economy losing momentum as fiscal support wanes, we can't expect the sales pace to continue," said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox.

But at least thus far, consumers have kept on buying vehicles.

"Tight inventories, bad economic news, concerns as pandemic hotspots break out, and plenty of political uncertainty in the time of presidential election – this is not an environment that supports strong auto sales," said Chesbrough. "And yet, if Q4 is like Q3, American car buyers will keep on buying cars at a healthy pace."

Twitter: @JGrzelewski