JESSE SNYDER

Sitting out Double Winter

Jesse Snyder is editor of the opinion page at Automotive News.Jesse Snyder is editor of the opinion page at Automotive News.
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Is the growth over for U.S. auto sales? We'll find out when the weather clears.

Look, auto sales are always lousy in January and February. Many buyers put purchases on hold so their shiny new vehicles don't start out with potholes and road salt. And so they can avoid the hassle of an after-work dealership visit to hunt through slushy lots in the dark.

That's regular winter. This year, at least for the 78 percent of Americans east of the Rockies, it's Double Winter. That's what I've decided to call it. Because all the bad parts of winter have doubled.

Double cold. Double snow. Double salt. Double potholes. Maybe triple potholes in Michigan.

This morning in the Detroit area, the thermometer was at minus 6 when I got up, but the sun was out and the wind hadn't redrifted the driveway since I cleared snow Sunday. Before I could feel blue about that, I saw the national weather report and compared our situation with those of friends and family. Let's see, four inches of sleet in Missouri, snow emergency in Washington, D.C., heavy rain and mudslides in L.A. Hey, guess I prefer my commute over those.

Winters affect auto sales. Really bad winters affect auto sales more.

My reasoning has some anecdotal support. General Motors and Ford noted that February sales perked up a bit the last half when the weather moderated.

Which two brands had a great January and February? Four-wheel-drive specialist Jeep, up 43 percent year to date, and all-wheel-drive specialist Subaru, up 22 percent.

Yes, Double Winter hurt sales the past two months. How much? We don't know yet, but enough to make March sales critical.

ALG President Larry Dominique is antsy about the combination of incentives creeping higher and the industry starting March with an 80-day supply of unsold stock.

"March will be crucial for the industry," he said today. "If we really have pent-up demand from buyers who couldn't get out in January and February, and March [weather] isn't too bad, that's one thing." But if weather hasn't masked demand, it will take big across-the-board incentives to clear out the backlog, he added.

Kelley Blue Book analyst Alec Gutierrez blames the limp January and February sales almost entirely on the weather, but agrees with Dominique that March is critical. He's sticking with his 2014 U.S. forecast of 16.3 million sales for now, but KBB will review that if March sales don't rebound, he said today.

"We're riding the forecast one more month," he said. But even if overall sales don't top 16 million this year, "automakers have proved they can be quite profitable at 15 million or above," Gutierrez added.

I have a hunch sales will come roaring back when the extreme weather clears. But it's just a hunch, based on seeing my family and neighbors avoid going out into the cold. March will tell a lot about how 2014 turns out.

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com.

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