U.S. sales of SUVs, small crossovers and full-size pickups rose 23 percent in September, compared with a 3 percent gain for the rest of the industry.
Cars have clearly become a tougher sell, as gasoline prices slip below $3 a gallon in parts of the country. But trucks and utility vehicles are flying off dealer lots, even as incentives are held in check.
The top three sellers last month were all pickups. Ram overtook the Honda Accord for third place, helping Chrysler Group surpass Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. on a monthly basis for the first time in three years. Chrysler also nipped at Ford Motor Co.'s heels, trailing by fewer than 10,000 units for the month.
Industry sales rose 9 percent overall in September and with three months to go, analysts generally agree that sales for the year are headed toward at least 16.4 million, which would be the most since 2006 and a 5 percent increase from 2013. September's seasonally adjusted, annualized selling rate came in at 16.4 million as well, showing that demand remains strong even after the industry put up big numbers all summer.
"This is about the best we could have expected from September," said Larry Dominique, executive vice president for industry solutions at TrueCar.
More details on how the industry fared:
GM and Chrysler each added more than a full point of market share, while Ford lost nearly 2 points. Through the first nine months of the year, the Detroit 3 have lost one-tenth of a point of share combined.
Compact crossovers have now outsold compact cars on the year. Automakers have sold 1.74 million compact crossovers, a 14 percent increase over the first nine months of 2013, to 1.72 million compact cars, a 1 percent gain. At the end of September last year, compact cars led their crossover counterparts by about 179,000 units.
TrueCar says compact crossovers and SUVs sell for about $5,400 more than compact cars, even though they cost only about $1,000 to $1,500 more to make.
Full-size pickups, whose share of the market has fallen slightly this year, notched a 20 percent sales gain in September, including increases of 54 percent for the Chevrolet Silverado and 30 percent for the Ram. Ford, which is in selldown mode on the F-150 as it prepares to launch the aluminum-bodied 2015 version, reported a 1 percent decline for the F series.
Average transaction prices rose for each of the Detroit automakers, American Honda and the Hyundai brand, according to TrueCar. GM said its transaction prices hit a record, helped by the fact that its brands accounted for 80 percent of large SUV sales for the month.
Average transaction prices declined year-over-year for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Nissan North America, Volkswagen Group of America and Kia. Volkswagen's prices fell more than $5,000 from a month ago.
Incentives rose 13 percent from September 2013, but Dominique said there's no reason to worry the industry is discounting too aggressively. The ratio of incentives to transaction prices is around 9 percent, which is still below the levels seen during and before the recession.
"It's a little high, but it's not crazy," Dominique said.
Much of the increase is attributable to a few high-volume segments, particularly midsize sedans -- the vehicles more consumers are walking away from in favor of crossovers and SUVs. Dominique said automakers are really "juicing incentives -- especially Toyota and Honda -- in that segment."
Amid lower demand for cars in general, declining gas prices have been especially troublesome for hybrids and electric cars. Demand for the Toyota Prius was down 10 percent in September, and is off 11 percent on the year. Sales of all alternative-power vehicles are down 6 percent this year.
Kia, up 7 percent on the year, is now about 1,000 units ahead of Dodge, which is down 4 percent.
Three automakers -- GM, Chrysler and Nissan -- coincidentally posted gains that round to 19 percent. Calculating them out more precisely, the increases were 19.4 percent for GM, 18.8 percent for Chrysler and 18.5 percent for Nissan.