General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Nissan all felt the bite from slowdown in sales in the first quarter, while Honda saw sales increase and Toyota held its own as sales of trucks and SUVs remained brisk.
“The industry had a tough first quarter but with spring finally starting to show its face and continued strong economic indicators, such as a boost in housing sales, lower lending rates and a strong labor market, we are confident that new vehicle sales demand will strengthen going forward,” FCA head of U.S. Sales Reid Bigland said.
“Meanwhile, our Ram brand sales and average transaction prices continue to be strong and our much anticipated, game-changing Jeep Gladiator pickup is on track for its in-market debut this month,” Bigland acknowledged.
However, FCA’s overall sales dropped 7% in March and by 3% in the first quarter as sales of the Jeep brand faltered in the face of higher interest rates and industry-wide signs that consumers are beginning to resist higher prices. Jeep, which enjoyed brisk sales in 2018, saw its sales drop 11% in March and by 7 % in the first quarter. Sales of the Fiat brand dropped 45%.
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GM also saw its overall sales decline by 7% during the first three months, but said the drop in sales volume was offset by record transaction prices.
The Chevrolet Trax, Equinox and Colorado all set GM first-quarter sales records and the GMC Acadia posted its best quarter ever. The all-new Cadillac XT4 was the best-selling vehicle in its segment and the Buick Enclave was up 28% versus a year ago.
The all-new full-size pickups from Chevrolet and GMC are also off to a very strong start, said Kurt McNeil, U.S. vice president, Sales Operations “Our production launch was very smooth and crew cab sales are brisk, especially those with premium trims,” he said.
However, sales of Chevrolet Silverado, Suburban and Tahoe all declined during the first quarter, GM reported.
Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. won’t report its sales until Thursday.
Toyota Motor North America an increase of 0.1% on a daily selling rate basis and a decrease of 3.5% on a volume basis versus March 2018. For the quarter, TMNA reported a decrease of 3.7% on a DSR basis and a 5% decrease on a volume basis.
“Light trucks and SUVs continue to lead the way for our industry, and Toyota’s Tacoma and RAV4 first-quarter sales results are a reflection of the strong consumer appeal of these vehicles,” said Jack Hollis, group vice president and general manager, Toyota division.
Lexus division posted March sales increased 8.2% on a volume basis. For the quarter, Lexus sales were up 5.4% on a DSR basis and up 4% on a volume basis.
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American Honda said its sales increased by 4.3% during March and by 0.7% during the first quarter. Honda brand sales increased 4.1 % during March and Acura sales increased 6.4% on strong sales of the Acura RDX.
“Our investment in benchmark products for both Honda and Acura has put us in position to achieve strong sales results, even in a challenging market,” said Henio Arcangeli Jr., senior vice president of the American Honda Automobile Division.
“While some competitors are using fleet sales to boost their numbers in this relatively flat market, our gains across the board are driven by retail customers buying our products one at a time.”
Nissan Group announced total U.S. sales for March declined 7% compared with the prior year. The figures included a 5.1% decline by the Nissan brand and a 23% drop by Infiniti.
Edmunds, the car shopping service, noted that shoppers looking to get a break from rising interest rates didn’t find it in March, as the average interest rate on a new vehicle loan hit its highest level in a decade. According to Edmunds, the annual percentage rate on new financed vehicles is expected to average 6.36% in March, compared to 5.66% last year and 4.44% five years ago
“Things just keep getting tougher for new-car shoppers,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis. “Interest rates have crept up every month so far this year, and new vehicle prices continue to hover near record highs. We’re on the cusp of what could be a pretty dramatic shift in the market, simply because a big chunk of buyers are getting priced out,” Caldwell said.
The weakness in auto sales so far this year has been on the retail side. Incentives remain relatively low and auto loan rates have not improved, so consumers haven’t had a compelling reason to buy. This market looks like it’s heading into a normal, post-peak slowdown that was temporarily disrupted last year by tax reform, noted Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Cox Automotive.
“The pool of people who can afford to buy a new vehicle is being reduced by higher prices and affordability concerns, and we’re likely seeing signs of that in the sales numbers,” he said.
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“So far this year, average new vehicle loan payments are up 3.5% compared to last year, to $567, and average lease payments are up 2.8% to $500. As a result of multiple years of rate and price inflation, new vehicles payments have become a big hurdle, driving people into used cars, where the average loan payment is $414, up less than 1% from a year ago.”