So What’s Going On with Auto Sales?

Easter fell into March this year, and March Lasted till April 2.

With US auto sales facing some stiff headwinds, timely data is no longer wanted, said GM Monday night, when it announced that it would no longer report new-vehicle unit sales in the US on a monthly basis to make it “easier” for us. This has been bread-and-butter data of the auto industry. But forget it. Now it’s like so TMI. Sez GM:

Thirty days is not enough time to separate real sales trends from short-term fluctuations in a very dynamic, highly competitive market. Reporting sales quarterly better aligns with our business, and the quality of information will make it easier to see how the business is performing.

I’m glad GM is trying to make things “easier” for us. Tuesday morning was the last time GM released monthly deliveries. Other major manufacturers will eventually fall off the wagon too. Even if they continue to report monthly, the industry totals will not be known, with GM’s 17% share missing. The end of an era.

So one last time, here’s what we got.

Total new-vehicle sales in the US rose 6.3% in March year-over-year to 1.654 million units. This lifted year-to-date sales by 1.9% to 4.11 million units.

These sales represent the number of vehicles delivered by dealers to their customers, or delivered by automakers directly to large fleet customers, as reported by Autodata. So unit sales, not dollar sales.

“Truck” sales soared 16.3% in March year-over-year. Car sales plunged 9.2%. Year-to-date, truck sales were up 9.8%, car sales down 10.8%.

But the industry-standard division between cars and “trucks” is somewhat misleading. “Trucks” include SUVs, compact SUVs (crossovers), pickups, and vans. SUVs and crossovers are immensely popular.

Crossovers are based on a unibody car chassis (instead of body-on-frame as is the case with trucks) and are just slightly higher and cooler versions of station wagons. For consumers, the switch from cars to crossovers is natural. So plunging car sales should be seen in light of surging crossover sales.

Including crossovers, “trucks” accounted for 66.4% of total sales, the highest ever for a March, and above 60% for the 21st month in a row.

The table below shows new-vehicle sales by automaker, sorted by total sales year-to-date (gray column). Automakers with declining sales either in March or year-to-date, or both, are marked in red. Note Hyundai’s ongoing sales plunge:

A special word about Tesla.

Tesla is hard to find on this list. It’s in 18th position near the bottom. But it doesn’t disclose how many vehicles it delivers in a month, and the industry has to estimate Tesla’s monthly US sales. For March and year-to-date, Autodata assumed that Tesla delivered the same number of units as last year. Even if this is off by a few hundred units, it makes no difference because Tesla has an inconsequential rounding-error-like market share of 0.3% year-to-date, compared to GM’s 17.4%.

Why the 6.3% gain in overall sales?

There are several reason for this increase, and two of them have nothing to do with the industry or what is sells:

  • The selling-month of March had an extra selling day and went through April 2, which is always helpful.
  • The selling-month of March contained the Easter Weekend, including Monday, April 2! Easter is a big sales weekend. Last year, Easter fell into the middle of April.
  • Huge incentives. J.D. Power estimated that the average incentive spending was $3,849, up $74 from March last year, amounting to 10.3% of MSRP.

But the prices…

Despite incentives averaging 10.3% of MSRP, the estimated average transaction price, which includes incentives and dealer discounts, rose by $703 year-over-year to $35,285 in March, according to Kelly Blue Book. It shows how crazy automakers are going on inflating their sticker prices.

Inventories of new vehicles on dealer lots, in terms of days’ supply, were flat with last year, at 70 days, according to estimates by J.D. Power a few days ago. 60 days is considered the upper limit of healthy.

Now the headwinds.

The selling month of April started on April 3 and lacks Easter, unlike last year. Easter and that Monday will be sorely missed. So in April, some of the sales gains in March are going to unwind. I’m certain that analysts and the media would point out that April was short and lacked the Easter weekend, though they assiduously forgot to mention that March benefited from the early Easter (though they did mention the extra selling day). But this is theoretical since GM won’t report April sales, and we’ll grope around in the dark.

Rising interest rates will push new vehicles out of reach for more and more people, and they will continue to step down the ladder to used vehicles.

Soaring defaults on subprime auto loans are causing lenders to tighten up their underwriting standards, and many potential buyers with subprime credit ratings cannot finance the new vehicle that they chose. Dealers will then switch them to a used vehicle. This trend, which we have observed since 2016, and was largely responsible for industry sales in 2017 falling below the levels of 2015!

But it’s now getting more serious. Over the first two months this year, according to J.D. Power, new-vehicle deliveries to customers with subprime credit ratings dropped 9%. And this trend, with overall credit conditions tightening, is not going to reverse anytime soon.

When will investors get tired of feeding their capital into this cash-burn machine? Read…  Tesla Gets Slammed by Tesla

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  66 comments for “So What’s Going On with Auto Sales?

  1. Harvey Darrow Cotton says:

    Who would buy a car now when that is money you could use to go all in on Spotify stick? ?

  2. John says:

    It seems like sales are holding up fairly well. I can only imagine the credit on the books.

  3. Bruce says:

    Why would you want to buy a new car when electric cars enmass are just around the corner

  4. Bart says:

    I was surprised by the numbers, much better than I thought but I think the headwinds will make ‘18 worse than ‘17. Food for thought, in Q2, Honda will idle production of the Accord for 14 days as inventory is 103 days and dealers are refusing to accept more Accords as they can’t sell what they have. Incentives are coming so incentive growth of $74/unit will trend higher in Q2. With home equity so high some must be buying cars w that wealth. Maybe the economy chugs along another quarter or two but things will get much slower within 12 months. AI is ramping in a big way.

    • Frederick says:

      Bart “ Imaginary” wealth

      • Setarcos says:

        It’s all imaginary, not just home equity. But even in the imaginary realms, buying new cars all the time will make your lack of imaginary wealth feel very real. Never to worry though, when you spend all you time getting laid, it is now normal for the taxpayer to be the one who get screwed.

    • Max Power says:

      Honda makes great automobiles but they are in a bad place right now ‘cause ‘muericans love their trucks and trucks just aren’t Honda’s forte. (As Wolf notes in the article, trucks currently make up more than 2/3rds of all new vehicles sold.)

      • Nick Kelly says:

        And there is a 25 % tariff on imported trucks, the main reason this is the last domestic stronghold.

        • Nick Kelly says:

          Does anyone know which vehicles are classified as ‘trucks’ and subject to the 25% tariff and which are not?
          Are F-150 type and size trucks considered light trucks?

          Are the various Honda products in the comment considered ‘trucks’ by the tariff?

          I understand the Toyota Tacoma Tundra is US built to avoid the tariff.

          My suspicion is that the huge predominance of domestic trucks is largely tariff- driven.

        • alex in san jose AKA digital Detroit says:

          I wonder if “trucks” include full size commercial vans which are built on truck chassis unlike minivans who are built on car chassis. That would make a lot of trucks.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          Commercial vans are included up to “1-ton” designation (1/2 ton, 3/4 ton, 1 ton) are included as are 1-ton pickups.

      • intosh says:

        Honda has best-selling “trucks” in their line-up with the CR-V, Pilot, Odyssey, and Acura MDX and RDX.

        So their problem is not that truck is not their forte (which is false); the problem is that cars are also their forte.

        • Max Power says:

          I should have been clearer… they are basically a non-player in the pickups part of the market, which makes up an important part of the overall US light trucks market.

        • Nick Kelly says:

          The CR-V, to name one, is an SUV- style body on a Civic platform and is not subject to the 25 % duty.

    • JohnnySacks says:

      Honda has lost it’s way with the Accord, and they’re not alone. A base starts at $24,000 with things like: Lane departure, Speed limit sign recognition, Distance pacing cruise control, Automatic temperature control, Wireless phone connectivity, Exterior parking camera rear, Front dual zone A/C, Auto high-beam headlights and worst of all, a go-kart belt drive CVT transmission. People aren’t lining up to go 60+ months long to buy this transportation appliance crap, what a surprise.

      There are no longer any simple utilitarian roomy vehicles built by US automakers, and foreign automakers are following suit. The Subaru Crosstrek will be our next vehicle unless they follow suit, bulletproof manual transmission and non-turbocharged engine.

  5. Martin says:

    Why would I want to buy a new 2018 pickup for $46500 when a 2010 with a new engine costs $4500 ?

  6. Kent says:

    My daily commute includes a 30 minute stretch on a 2 lane highway through the forest in central Florida. The speed limit is 55. Too slow for my tastes, so I spend a lot of time passing.

    At least once a day I’ll come upon a stretch of 5 or 6 pickups lugging along at 55. They can’t pass because they can’t accelerate fast enough. You can feel their anger as I glide past them in my little Civic.

    I always think that for double the money and triple the gas, I too could get stuck doing 55!

  7. James Levy says:

    First off, I have to plead annoyance as I post this, as the observations carry rancor and are therefore not objective. That said, where I live in rural Western Massachusetts I see people who I am pretty sure don’t make more than 30 or 40 thousand dollars a year driving around in pick-ups that had to cost damn near their total yearly salary. This begs two questions: 1) how the hell do they afford the payments? and 2) who the hell would loan a man his entire year’s salary worth of pickup truck? I drive a 2001 Camry, my wife a 2007 Focus. We pulled in a little over 80k last year, combined. There is no way we could afford a 40k pickup truck, although it would be great to have one up here in the Hilltowns. If you want to avoid carrying debt, it’s sad that 80k in a rural area doesn’t afford you the luxury of even a new used car or truck.

    • Max Power says:

      They afford the payments by stretching them to insane loan term lengths, like 84 months, coupled with still relatively low interest rates. The average loan length for all new cars right now is about 70 months. Gone are the days of the 36 month car payment of a generation ago. Anyway, most people “buy payment”; they don’t care about the total cost of the car.

      Of course the ultra long terms mean that folks go “upside-down” in the vehicle’s value pretty quickly into the loan.

      Another possibility is that the folks you see are leasing those trucks, in which case their payment is relatively low but they are basically just renting those trucks.

      • Setarcos says:

        Good points. 2 things to add, 1 “for” longer payment terms and 1 “against”….vehicles do last longer than a generation so 72 month loan seems okay. However, it would seem reasonable to think that a vehicle loaded with todays fancy electronics could become a real financial burden over time (and obsolete at best). Not sure about that because I have bought without fancy electronic add-ons and try to fill the gap somewhat with my phone &/or portable electronics.

        • Setarcos says:

          Meant to say vehicles last longer than a generation ago, not a generation! Though I have a 98 MB that is an exception

        • Dan Romig says:

          Electronic add-ons are, to me at least, unnecessary distractions and costs. Hell, when you’re on the road driving, that’s what you should be doing – driving.

          My ’06 Chevy Silverado 1500 has no power windows or locks, but I just roll the windows up or down by hand. The FM radio is stereo though, so I feel like I’m living large!

          As far as new truck and car sales go, I would rather have a good quality and well-maintained vehicle with no payments to make.

        • Argus says:

          I love my 2009 Subaru Forester, which I bought as a demo model at the time. I plan to hold onto it as long as possible. I have driven, but hate, the new ‘nanny cars’ with all the gizmos that do your thinking for you. They are distracting and, imo, take the fun out of driving.
          Can’t see myself buying a new Forester for that reason.

        • JohnnySacks says:

          I can’t imagine the plight of the commercial user who wants a heavy duty box, left pedal stop, right pedal go, steering wheel in center, work that junk for as long as possible. Then has to go into a GMC dealer and be forced to buy an extra 5 figures of pimped out crap on a workhorse that won’t see a car wash or carpet vacuum in years. And to add insult to injury, can’t import one from a country where utilitarian purpose is #1.

    • Paulo says:

      Same on Vancouver Island. About 1 km away from me an idiot developed some property for trailers. Somehow he got it by zoning. The one trailer that moved in looks like one of those, “you can have it for free, but you have to pay for the moving costs”. Seriously, I have seen trailers “sell” for free….certainly less than $2,000. (Can you imagine the mold and bugs?) Anyway, parked outside are two spanking brand new $60,000 PUs.

      There are so many F-150s around here it is unbelieveable. Or giant GMs. Work is booming right now with selling 27% tariffed lumber to the US market. Booming. Construction is absolutely exploding, too. I am supposedly retired and could work 7 days per week if I wanted to. Everyone has a new truck but me. (hey wait a minute, maybe that’s why I am retired….? hmmm) :-)

    • Begbie says:

      Nobody I know or who lives near me has bought a new car in years that I can tell and I live in the most affluent neighborhood in the most affluent town in the state where I live.

      • DF says:

        “and I live in the most affluent neighborhood in the most affluent town in the state where I live.”

        That’s probably why. Working-class people love to blow all their money on shiny new cars/trucks.

  8. Begbie says:

    Stock market goes up 500 points one day and down 500 the next and GM doesn’t feel thirty days is adequate to signal a “trend”? Ya, the trend is, People Are Broke! There’s your trend

  9. gorbachov says:

    I like to drive a new car so we lease.They work out fine for

    low mileage users.If you travel lots and put on the miles you’re

    better off buying a low mileage 3-year-old ride. A Ford Escape comes

    to mind. As an aside, I just can’t see myself in an electric car. The fuel

    up time would make me nuts.

  10. NotLee says:

    I will never understand why anyone spends so much on a new car or truck. My 1990 F150 cost me $1,500 15 years ago and still runs great, while getting 19 miles to the gallon (straight six with manual 5 speed overdrive).
    I think a new car is more of an appendage inflation device for a lot of people.

    • Smingles says:

      “I will never understand why anyone spends so much on a new car or truck.”

      Is it really that hard to understand? People like new things. While your 1990 pickup may serve its purpose just fine, I can assure you a 2018 F-150 is waaaaay nicer. And some people want that.

      Why do people who play golf buy new clubs constantly? Why do people buy new TVs? Why do people buy new clothes? Why do people buy new guns?

    • Ethan in NoVA says:

      I said I wouldn’t buy new again, but did. I drove the last car I bought new for 17 years. I expect to get at least 13 out of my current one. The price for used just wasn’t a good deal, probably because of subprime auto loans. I will pay it off, and drive it for many years paid off like I did the prior. I somewhat wish I did buy a used Honda Element but I’ll admit I like my vehicle.

    • Dave P says:

      I drive a truck with 130k and repair all the little things myself as well as do standard maintenance such as oil, brakes, u joints etc.

      I talk to some people at work who only keep a car for 3-5 years as they are afraid of breakdowns/repair costs.

      These people have no mechanical aptitude and have to pay for all the work needed to maintain a vehicle.

      At 52 I am sick and tired of wrenching, kills the back and shoulders. Then I look at the cost of a brake job for just one axle and roll out the floor jack on my day off and do it. Growing up poor has its benefits I suppose.

    • alex in san jose AKA digital Detroit says:

      Notlee – I swear I had that same truck in the late 90s. Did yours have peeling silver paint? That thing could get up and go. It had a real thirst for gas, though.

  11. Colin says:

    The US birth rate is very low with no signs of changing. Cable subscriptions are getting hammered. I’d say housing is rather underwhelming. Auto sales look okay, but is it reasonable to think it benefits from the others doing poorly?

    • Arizona Slim says:

      Cable subscriptions getting hammered? Preach it!

      I, for one, have no TV in my house. Never have. (I’d rather read books.)

      That being said, my cable Internet provider (Cox) keeps sending me signup pitches for their Contour TV service. Ummm, Cox, check your records. In them, you’ll see that I’ve never had any sort of TV hookup with you. Ever.

      [Slim chucks another Contour mailing into the trash.]

  12. Dr Pangloss says:

    Some people LOVE cars and trucks! I am a “car guy”. I love driving a nice car. I love keeping it clean and polished. Cars are my hobby. Love to go to car shows with my wife and or grown kids and grandkids.
    Leave it alone! I can afford my hobby. Others can afford it too. It makes me happy to drive a nice clean car.
    Even if others can’t afford their ride, at least for a time it makes them happy. Even if they can’t afford their ride that is their issue and not for snippy comments for those who are not “car guys.”

    • ft says:

      Dr Pangloss,

      At 69, I’ve owned 27 cars/trucks and 12 motorcycles, so I guess I too am a “car guy”. Those who view cars as appliances to be had and maintained for as little as possible won’t understand why I (currently) drive a WRX instead of a Civic, but I suspect you do.

      You’d think the auto companies would be happy with a guy like me, but they are not, because their finance arms have failed to get their claws in.

  13. Smingles says:

    To be fair– and I don’t know whether GM has any ulterior motives here– but trying to distinguish any sorts of major trends from monthly data is ridiculous, and we see people mistake monthly blips in all sorts of data series for a change in the trend when it’s simply not there. I would say that’s what happened a few weeks ago with the brief wage inflation scare. The trend simply was not there.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Here’s the Employment Cost Index. It’s quarterly. So Q1 is not included. Check the YOY change. The 2.75% increase was the fastest in nine years. The trend since the low point in 2010, despite the zig-zags (yes, there are zig-zags in quarterly data too), is very clear. And this has been obvious to any business:

      • Lance Manly says:

        The sad thing is that since corporations use their profits for stock buy backs instead of investing in productivity like they used to employment cost goes straight to inflation.

      • Smingles says:

        I’m not saying wage inflation won’t happen, although it seems unlikely from my perspective. I’m saying talk to me in six months when we’ve seen multiple quarters of significantly above trend growth in wages, i.e. a sustained breakout. Looking at multiple data sets related to income and wages, I haven’t seen anything that portends an explosion in wages that would cause a spike in inflation; it’s just not there.

        The ECI includes benefits and is not a good measure of wage inflation, necessarily. I can’t spend the increases in my healthcare benefits, although it certainly raises my cost from the employer perspective. 30% of the ECI is benefits.

        Also, a large portion of the recent increase in wages has accrued to supervisory workers. While they spend money, I think you’d be liable to see more pressure if these increases were going to the rank and file. Putting more cash in the bank, buying more stocks… it’s not going to do it.

  14. Loren says:

    the name is “J D Power” not J D Powers

  15. SquarePeg says:

    I am a sports car enthusiast and I was looking for one for almost two years when I spotted one from my short list online that looked like it was worth a look.
    As luck would have it the car was at a dealership next door to a friend’s dealership who does fleet sales for a large group of import dealerships.
    He went over to check the car out for me since I live a couple of hours away. After getting the thumbs up from him I negotiated the price and bought the car sight unseen.
    When I went to pick it up a few days later I paid my friend a visit before leaving with the car. I found him chatting with coworkers and generally not looking very busy. It was a Monday morning in early February so I thought it might just be a slow hour. When I asked he pointed to his delivery board which was clean and empty for the whole week. A car he sold that day would likely not be delivered and paid for until the next week so the whole week was already a goose egg although he did wind up delivering one car.
    This is a guy that has delivered two to three cars a day during the SLOWEST OF TIMES for the last 30 years and he has never seen this happen before. He sells to large fleet companies like rental agencies, car brokers, and referrals. None of the people he does business with were doing any better and panic was setting in.
    The dealerships are located just north of Toronto in an affluent suburb.

    • ft says:

      On the other side of the coin, the Subaru dealer in Fremont CA where I bought a car in Feb was on track to sell 120 cars over Presidents’ Day weekend. The place was packed.

    • intosh says:

      Toronto? Property sales dropped nearly 40% in March compared to the same period last year. Average selling price dropped more than 14% compared to same period last year.

      So maybe Torontonians are felling poorer and are holding off getting that new vehicle.

    • chris Hauser says:

      yes, something is amiss in some parts of canada.

    • Altandmain says:

      Are we talking about the Richmond Hill, Vaughan, and Markham areas?

      It seems like there is a lot of fallout from the decline in the housing market in Toronto. It may be that cars have become an unaffordable luxury for many.

      The housing bubble was never going to be sustainable I’m afraid.

  16. Drango says:

    Unless you’re really desperate, there’s no reason to buy a new car unless there are rebates or zero finance offers. I’m sure these offers pull a lot of sales forward, and make it harder to use auto sales as an indicator of the state of the economy, except maybe in retrospect.

  17. Alex says:

    I thought auto sales were counted by shipments from factory to dealer? When did this change?

    • Wolf Richter says:

      There are two types of reports:

      In the US, monthly unit sales (as in this article) have been reported this way for many decades: deliveries by dealers to their customers, manufacturers’ deliveries to large fleet customers (direct sales), and manufacturers deliveries to their employees under their employee purchase programs.

      HOWEVER, when automakers report their quarterly earnings, a “sale” for revenue purposes is triggered when the vehicle is “invoiced” to a dealer, which happens before the vehicle gets to the dealer.

  18. mickey says:

    on GM perhaps Ford, I wonder how many fleet sales were booked, to car rentals and Government?

    if I have time I will look.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Total fleet sales = 21%, about normal for March.

      The #1 fleet buyers are rental car companies. There are about 2.2 million rental vehicles in service in the US. Most major automakers, including Toyota and Nissan, are trying to get a slice of that huge pie.

      Then far behind is everyone else, including rideshare companies like Uber that buy cars for their autonomous experimental fleet (Uber used to order Fords, but recently has inked a deal for 24,000 Volvos). Corporations buy vehicles for their company fleets (sales, etc.). Governments buy at all levels (city, county, state, and federal) for things like cop cars and black Secrete Service SUVs….

      The fleet business is huge and government doesn’t play a dominant role in it.

  19. MF says:

    While I don’t believe GM is doing this for us, it may end up being a good thing.

    How often do we lament the extreme short-sightedness of major corporations? If this helps GM focus on building its brand over the long term, it’s good.

  20. baldski says:

    Cars to me are ridiculous if you think about it. A car operated at 50 mph will rack up 100,000 miles in 2000 hours of operating time. 2000 hours equals 3 months. We buy a product for $35,000 and use it for 3 months and then we throw it away!

    • BirdBrain says:

      Your method for calculating the cost of having a tool at your disposal is very strange at best, and a bargain considering a 100,000-mile Uber ride would be about $100,000.
      A person could always buy a new Hyundai or Kia for $15,000 and come out even further ahead than your calculation of $35,000 purchase price. Better yet—they could sell said tool for $5,000 after 100,000 miles and come out smelling like roses.
      $10,000 for 100,000 miles…my kind of deal!
      Do they teach math anymore? Logic? Debate?

  21. Remy says:

    I am not surprised that GM – Buick was up for the moth. They were discounting Buick Encore MSRP $25,000 to $15,000 last month.

  22. Bart says:

    Go to Automotive News and check out the article “The 0% auto loan era fades into the rear view mirror”. Average interest rate on auto loans in March was highest since 09. Last year, 0% auto loans were 11% of the market and last month they were down to 7.4%.

  23. I must have this wrong, but I can’t let it go, if, as you say “So one last time, here’s what we got”:

    Total new-vehicle sales in the US rose 6.3% in March year-over-year to 1.654 million units. This lifted year-to-date sales by 1.9% to 4.11 million units.”

    These two figures don’t jibe. do you mean, in the first instance BY 1.654 mln? If ytd sales = 4.1 million, then how can more vehicles be sold in one quarter than were sold in an entire year that includes that quarter? Is the decimal in the wrong place, and it should be 16.54? which at 4 quarters times 4.11 = 16.44, seems to make more sense. Am I just being daft?

    • Wolf Richter says:

      “Total new-vehicle sales in the US rose 6.3% in March year-over-year to 1.654 million units”: means that in March 2018, a total of 1.654 million vehicles was sold, which was 6.3% higher than the number of vehicles sold in March 2017. “Year-over-year” compares current period to same period a year ago (in this instance March 2018 to March 2017).

      “This lifted year-to-date sales by 1.9% to 4.11 million units”: means that in Q1 2018 (= year-to-date = Jan, Feb, Mar), a total of 4.11 million vehicles were sold. This was 1.9% higher than Q1 2017.

      The average monthly sales in Q1 2018 = 4.11 million vehicles divided by 3 = 1.37 million vehicles. This makes sense because Jan and Feb are very low-volume months.

      • robert lowrey says:

        Thanx so much. It was the year-over-year I misunderstood, thinking it meant the entire years’ sales. Gotcha.

  24. Birgit says:

    I tried to buy a new Ford F350 in May of 2017. The salespeople/dealership I had made an appointment with told me I had to buy one of the trucks off their lot and REFUSED to order the truck I wanted. Needless to say I DIDN’T buy an new F 350 because of them! Then FORD wonders why sales are low!!! I didn’t buy a new F350.

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