February sales tale: Advances, setbacks, lots of volatility

Car sales slipped 6 percent last month while light truck deliveries advanced 6 percent. Photo credit: REUTERS

February U.S. auto sales were only flat on average. For many players, February was either pretty good or flat-out bad.

Subaru jumped 24 percent. Nissan North America gained 16 percent. Chrysler Group climbed 11 percent, led by Jeep's stunning 47 percent increase, the brand's best February ever, with the new Cherokee selling briskly.

Jaguar soared 35 percent. Buick was up 19 percent.

Others lost big. Ford Motor was down 6 percent overall, despite a 36 percent jump at Lincoln.

Volkswagen brand plunged 14 percent, its 11th straight down month and sixth in a row with a double-digit drop. Mini's 43 percent swoon dragged BMW Group into negative territory. Honda-brand sales fell 8 percent, and both the Toyota and Hyundai marques lost 6 percent.

For a February market so flat -- the net sales loss was just 357 units out of almost 1.2 million light vehicles -- that's a lot of internal volatility.

In a similar way, large pickup sales look flat: up 2 percent in February, down fractionally for the first two months. But except for the Ford F series, big pickups weren't flat.

The best-selling vehicle in American drifted 1 percent higher for the first two months after 3 percent growth in February. Most everybody else soared or sank in February.

Sales of Chrysler Group's Ram pickup jumped 26 percent. And the Toyota Tundra rose 8 percent.

By contrast, GM's twins fell 9 percent overall, and the Nissan Titan plummeted 32 percent. The Titan's struggles aren't surprising for an aging model about a year from replacement. But the remodeled Chevy Silverado, which was named North American Truck of the Year in January, is doing worse than stablemate GMC Sierra, which was up 1 percent for February. Silverado sales fell 12 percent in February and are off 15 percent the first two months.

Other highlights:

Chrysler closes gap: Riding an 11 percent gain, Chrysler Group finished just 4,418 units behind Toyota Motor Sales in February, 159,284 to 154,866. A year earlier, Toyota's unit lead was 27,362.

Who wants to lead? The 2014 U.S. auto sales race is starting in reverse, with sales falling for six of the top eight in both auto groups and brands.

But Nissan and Chrysler are making the most of double-digit growth through the first two months of the year.

As an automaker, Nissan North America used a 14 percent gain to replace American Honda as No. 5 through February. Similarly, Nissan bumped Honda to become the No. 4 brand behind Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota.

Up 10 percent so far in 2014, Chrysler Group has cut the gap between it and No. 3 automaker Toyota Motor Sales to 23,600 units, compared with 67,356 units in the same period in 2013.

And Chrysler's Jeep, soaring 43 percent so far this year, has bypassed both stablemate Dodge and Kia to become the No. 7 brand. It now trails slumping No. 6 Hyundai by about 5,000 units.

With torrid 26 percent growth so far, the Ram brand has jumped past Volkswagen, Mercedes, Mazda, and sibling division Chrysler to grab the No. 12 spot among brands.

Altima top-selling car: The Nissan Altima outsold the Toyota Camry by 1,851 units in February and now leads year-to-date in the race for the best-selling car in the United States. Last year, the Camry didn't win every month but did retain its best-seller crown for the full year with 408,484 units. At 320,723 sales, the Altima finished fourth, behind the Honda Accord and Civic.

Leaf-Volt update: The all-electric Nissan Leaf outsold the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt by 215 units in February, 1,425 to 1,210, eliminating Volt's almost one-thousand-unit advantage from a year earlier. Through two months, Leaf sales have doubled to 2,677 while Volt sales are off 23 percent to 2,128.

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com -- Follow Jesse on Twitter: https://twitter.com/spartyjesse

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