Detroit Three automakers post first-quarter sale gains; foreign rivals surge, too

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — Despite the continuing coronavirus pandemic and persistent shortage of microchips, high consumer demand drove sales gains for all three Detroit automakers — and their foreign rivals — during the first quarter of 2021.

General Motors Co. posted a 4% year-over-year improvement, Jeep and Ram maker Stellantis NV reported a 5% increase, and Ford Motor Co. saw the lowest increase of just 1% for the January-through-March period.

Trucks and full-size SUVs are proving the highest-demand products for automakers, which is why they've tried to protect their truck plants as they battle a global shortage of semiconductors. Also known as "chips," they're used throughout a vehicle, from the seats to the steering wheel. Their shortage has led to multiple plant shutdowns, hurting automakers' bottom lines. 

Unlike its crosstown rivals, GM hasn't yet had to shut down its full-size truck and SUV plants because of the chip shortage. But it has moved to shut down several other plants, some for as long as two months, to make sure the chip supply gets to the in-demand products first.

GM said Thursday it sold a total of 642,250 vehicles in the United States, with retail deliveries, or sales to individuals and small businesses, up 19% percent and fleet sales down 35% year over year.

Ford dealers sold 521,334 vehicles in the first quarter. Ford’s first-quarter retail sales were up 23%, but its fleet sales weren't detailed.

Stellantis-affiliated dealers sold 469,651 vehicles. Retail sales rose 25%, and fleet commercial sales tracked 24% higher. Fleet sales accounted for 19% of total sales for the quarter, the automaker said Thursday.

“In spite of what started out as a strong start last year, before COVID shocked us all, this quarter was a very strong rebound for retail sales year over year,” Jeff Kommor, Stellantis' U.S. Head of Sales, said in a statement. “The consumer demand for our brands and our products was extremely strong throughout the quarter.”  

Mike Damico, right, salesman, Matthews-Hargreaves Chevrolet, explains the new features of the 2021 Silverado Crew RST 4x4 Duramax to customer Alex Potoniec of Clawson at the Royal Oak dealership on Tuesday, January 5, 2020 
 Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

The improving performance comes after sales suffered last March when the pandemic caused state governments to institute stay-at-home orders, shutting down dealerships and auto plants for weeks. When dealers and auto plants started to reopen in May they were met with a surprisingly high consumer demand. 

“Over the last year, our dealers, supply chain and manufacturing teams have gone above and beyond to satisfy customers as demand for GM products rose sharply,” said Steve Carlisle, GM executive vice president and president of North America, in a statement. “The great teamwork continues. Sales are off to a strong start in 2021, we are operating our truck and full-size SUV plants at full capacity, and we plan to recover lost car and crossover production in the second half of the year where possible.”

GM brands Cadillac, GMC and Buick all saw sales increase year over year. Chevrolet saw a slight drop of about 2%.

Stellantis' Jeep, Ram, Chrysler and Alfa Romeo brands all reported sales increases even as Dodge and Fiat both posted 28% sales declines. Dodge's sales slump likely can be attributed to the sell down of the Grand Caravan and Journey, which were both discontinued last year. 

Ford's iconic Blue Oval brand saw a small 1% increase and Lincoln brand sales came in down slightly by 0.6%. 

GM said it sold 126,591 Chevrolet Silverados in the first quarter of 2021, a 12.5% drop from last year with 126,591 sales. Silverado light duty sales led to the decrease with a 20% decline, likely due to tight inventory. But total GMC Sierra sales were up 19% at 62,917.

Meanwhile, the Ram, Silverado's competitor, saw a 16% increase with sales of 162,920. But the Ram and Silverado could not beat Ford's F-Series sales of 203,797, a 9% increase over last year. Ford noted it was the best start of the year for F-Series in 15 years.

In full-size SUVs, GMC Yukon sales were up 31%, Cadillac Escalade sales were up 75%, Chevrolet Suburban sales were up 17%, and Tahoe was up 13%.

Sales of Jeep SUVs, arguably Stellantis' most globally popular brand, were up 8%. Wrangler was a star with a 25% sales increase for the best-ever first-quarter retail sales. The Gladiator pickup also performed well with a 23% sales gain, marking its best month ever in March since its 2019 launch.

Ford highlighted that its electrified vehicles — driven by the fully electric Mustang Mach-E and the F-150 PowerBoost Hybrid — saw a 74% increase with 25,980 vehicles sold. 

Ford was the third best-selling battery electric vehicle behind the Tesla Model 3 and Model Y with just over 4,000 sales in February, according to a Morgan Stanley note this week. Ford said the Mach-E's first quarter sales totaled 6,614.

The Ford Bronco Sport had its best sales performance to date in March with 9,780 SUVs sold and total first-quarter sales of 23,356.

“Our customers are really embracing our new electrified vehicle lineup. The all-new fully electric Mustang Mach-E and the F-150 PowerBoost Hybrid lifted Ford’s overall electrified vehicle sales to a record start in the first quarter with sales up 74 percent over a year ago," said Andrew Frick, vice president of Ford U.S. and Canada sales. "Our all-new Bronco Sport posted record monthly sales in March and helped power Ford Brand SUVs to their best start in 20 years.” 

Hyundai Motor America reported its first quarter sales were up 28% year over year.  March saw a 115% increase. Kia said it had its best-ever month in March, and first quarter sales reached an all-time high. The South Korean automaker's sales were up 9% over the previous first quarter high set in 2016. Its first quarter 2021 sales were up about 14% over 2020's first quarter.

Volkswagen of America Inc. reported sales of 90,853 units delivered in the first quarter of 202, a 21% increase year over year. Honda Motor Co. reported a 16% sales increase during the first quarter with Honda sales up 14% and Acura up 32%.