Ford sales, reflecting pandemic woes and lineup changeover, down 15.6% in 2020

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co., still feeling the effects of a pandemic-induced production shutdown early in the year amid a major overhaul of its vehicle lineup, reported U.S. new-vehicle sales were down 9.8% in the fourth quarter of 2020 and down 15.6% for the year.

The results in part reflect the ongoing changeover to the new model year of the Blue Oval's best-selling, profit-rich F-150 pickup truck; the redesigned 2021 model is currently being delivered to dealerships. For the quarter, Ford's truck sales were down 12.5%; F-150 sales were off by 32.7%, the automaker reported. 

"Fourth quarter represented an inflection point at Ford in our transition from cars to a much greater focus on iconic trucks, SUVs and electric vehicles to better serve our customers," Andrew Frick, vice president of Ford sales for the U.S. and Canada, said in a statement. "We began to see our strongest evidence of this in December with retail sales up 5.3% with the launch of our new F-150, Bronco Sport and Mustang Mach-E. We are well positioned to see the benefits of our focused efforts throughout 2021."

Ford F-150

The results come two days after Frick took over as the head of sales for the U.S. and Canada, replacing Mark LaNeve, who Ford said had "elected to depart Ford ... in order to pursue the next chapter of his professional life."

And the sales tallies come one day after the rest of the automotive industry reported a mix of results for 2020. General Motors Co. said Tuesday that its U.S. sales fell 11.8% from 2019. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's sales were off 17%. 

Industry analysts predict total new-vehicle sales in the U.S. will total about 14.5 million for 2020, a decline from the more than 17 million vehicles sold in 2019 and the industry's lowest level since 2012. 

Still, the depleted results are better than what was anticipated at the onset of the pandemic, when North American auto production was halted for eight weeks to help stop the spread of the virus. Industry analysts have noted the strong rebound of consumer demand — particularly among well-off consumers — and the resiliency of higher-margin trucks and SUV sales.

Higher average transaction prices have helped automakers bounce back and recoup second quarter losses. The average list price of new vehicles reached $40,423 in December, up 6.2% from last year, Cox Automotive Inc. reported.

"The vehicle market in 2020 perfectly illustrates the K-shaped recovery we're watching," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox's Autotrader. "The top leg of the K represents the upwardly mobile people who kept jobs, were invested in the surging stock market, saved money because they had no place to spend it. This group stayed in the market, and they bought expensive vehicles, SUVs and pickup trucks.

"The bottom leg of the K is an entirely different story," she added. "It represents the financially vulnerable who lost income or jobs altogether, struggled with credit issues and were frozen out of the new-vehicle market, which is why lower-priced vehicles, including cars, suffered. This fractured marketplace was emerging even before the pandemic, but it was accelerated in 2020."

A bright spot for Ford was its SUV sales, particularly of the midsize Explorer, which has caused problems for the automaker in the past due to a botched launch of the 2020 model year. 

SUV sales were up 4% for the quarter and were down just 9.7% for the year, the smallest decline of any of the automaker's vehicle segments.

The automaker noted that the Explorer, with sales up 20.9% for the year, "represents one of the few vehicles to increase its sales in 2020." Explorer sales were up nearly 29% in the fourth quarter.

The quarter was the first to reflect sales of the new Bronco Sport, which sold 5,120 units. Ford reported that sales of the Super Duty pickup truck were up 14.1% in the fourth quarter. Transit sales were up 2.7%.

Sales of the Blue Oval's flagship F-Series truck franchise were down 15.2% for the quarter and 12.2% for the year.

Ford highlighted some of the bright spots for its Lincoln brand, which overall saw sales decline 7% for the quarter and 6.1% for the year. Sales of both the Aviator and Corsair SUVs were up in the fourth quarter.

Retail sales across the industry have held up better than sales to fleet customers, and Ford's results reflected that in the fourth quarter, with retail sales down just 3.4%.

The results come as the Blue Oval undertakes one of the most significant portfolio refreshes in its history. The redesigned F-150, electric Mustang Mach-E and Bronco Sport began deliveries in the fourth quarter, and the automaker is preparing to launch the full-size Bronco, plus electric versions of the F-150 and its popular Transit commercial van.

The automaker reported that the new F-150 and Bronco Sport are spending an average of just six days on dealer lots. In all, the Blue Oval reported sales of just over 2 million new vehicles in the U.S. in 2020.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski