May was a great sales month for the U.S. auto industry, everything a marketer could ask for. Spectacular selling rate, strong pricing power, modest incentives and volume well above expectations.
A 1.6 percent increase doesn’t sound exciting, but most analysts had expected a 1 percent decline because May 2014 was boffo and had one more selling day than May of this year.
While monthly sales numbers are just one metric, they usually are a fair overall indicator of automaker health. But not always.
Mixing May’s results with some TrueCar pricing and incentive numbers and Automotive News Data Center’s fleet tracking yields more detail on the consequences of firm or soggy sales. And this month, three automakers popped out of the broth as either example or exception.
Subaru was hot. Hyundai-Kia was not. Ford found a cozy spot.
Subaru’s 12 percent May gain isn’t surprising. The company is now up 16 percent this year. But it’s a prime example of good things that can come with long-term growth. Of nine automakers TrueCar tracks on incentives, Subaru is the lowest: $726 per vehicle, or 2.7 percent of the transaction price. And its May average transaction prices (purchase price minus factory incentives) jumped 4.8 percent to $27,264.
Hyundai-Kia combined May sales fell 3.8 percent. Through five months, the South Korean siblings are 3.1 percent ahead, not too far from the industry’s 4.3 percent increase. But the other metrics are worse. TrueCar measures the brands separately. In May, Hyundai bumped incentives 25 percent, but average transaction prices fell 1.8 percent from a year earlier and it sold 10 percent fewer vehicles. In May, Kia increased sales 3.9 percent. But it boosted incentives 19 percent to $2,775 a vehicle, above industry average even though Kia’s average transaction price is almost $9,000 below the industry ATP.
And Hyundai-Kia’s sales numbers are propped up by heavy fleet reliance. May fleet numbers aren’t yet available, but through four months Hyundai-Kia’s fleet sales jumped 25 percent while retail volume rose 1 percent, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
Ford Motor sales look soggy: down 1.3 percent in May and up only 1.9 percent through five months, the weakest of the Detroit 3 on both counts.
But Ford’s other metrics are strong. In May, it cut per-vehicle incentive spending 14 percent to $2,836 and boosted average transaction prices 4.2 percent to almost $34,000. That puts its spiffs at 8.3 percent of average transaction price, 18 percent better than a year earlier and almost exactly industry average. And Ford did all this while trimming reliance on fleet volume through the first four months.
Please note that TrueCar makes monthly estimates of incentive spending and transaction prices before sales are reported. Similar estimates by Kelley Blue Book and others vary from TrueCar, but not by a lot.
The U.S. auto industry is in a good place. But even in a great month, some automakers clearly have better arcs than others.