In February snow, buyers want 4x4s

So February U.S. auto sales came in lower than the forecasters figured just a week or two ago. Well yeah! Snow days.

Mid-month, most prognosticators were clustered between a 16.6 million and 16.7 million seasonally adjusted annual selling rate, up 8 or 9 percent from February 2014.

But storms socked in the Midwest and East last weekend, the peak selling days of the month. So the SAAR ended up at 16.2 million, up a mere 5.3 percent.

Where the snow fell affected which automakers got whacked, too. The snow track repeatedly smacked Midwest and Northeast states the hardest.

“Automakers strong in those markets were hit harder while those more focused in California and West Coast markets weren’t affected as much,” says Mark Wakefield, managing director of consultancy AlixPartners in Southfield, Mich.

California-based Toyota Motor Sales gained 13 percent. By contrast, Midwest-based FCA US managed a 5.6 percent increase, General Motors eked out a 4.2 percent gain and Ford Motor fell 2 percent.

But it’s an ill wind that blows no good. In heavy snow, folks determined to get to the showroom buy four-wheel drive.

“You are one focused buyer if you go out in crappy weather,” says John Krafcik, president of TrueCar.com. “This is the time to buy a 4x4. Camry buyers can wait for better weather.”

Which brands were red hot in a snowy month? Four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive specialists. That’s Subaru and GMC, both up 19 percent, and Jeep, 21 percent higher.

Look, winter is always a terrible time to shop for a new car. Especially in the snow belt, which this year has drifted pretty far south.

We all know the usual explanations of why car sales fall in January and February: folks can’t get out in bad weather, would rather get the road salt on their old car than the new one, or are still waiting for tax refunds to use as down payments.

But there’s another, practical reason why auto buyers wait for spring: daylight. Research online until your fingertips bleed, but before signing a 30-grand contract most buyers want to see the vehicle, in good light.

And mid-winter, daylight’s done before office hours are. So shoppers are coming on Saturdays or taking time off work. Or buying sight-unseen.

Don’t take my word. Imagine this conversation with your significant other:

“Hi honey. Hey, how about after dinner, we shovel the driveway, get the kids’ coats and boots on, go down to the dealership and look at what’s out on the lot?”

If you can picture getting a “yes” in response to that, I guess I can predict a 4x4 in your immediate future.

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

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