DETROIT — Sure enough, consumers drove more full-sized pickups off dealership lots in August than in any previous month in 2008. And, indeed, small-car share drifted back down from the stratosphere.
But has the mix been fixed? Are the truck behemoths really back? And has the slim-profit small-car craze peaked? Bean counters, beware. It ain't over till it's over.
Small-car sales were constrained last month by low inventory levels, and don't forget that gasoline — while cheaper than it was — still costs more than $3.50 a gallon.
And although full-sized pickups posted their highest sales and industry share month of the year in August, manufacturers had to shell out. The average full-sized pickup incentive was $5,723 per vehicle last month, Edmunds.com reported. That's the highest monthly pickup incentive since Edmunds began tracking the data in January 2002.
TV commercials in the Detroit area promoted as much as $9,000 off Ford F-series pickups. Nissan ran deep truck discounts in its 41 biggest retail markets, and 74 percent of Titan pickup sales came from those markets. A Nashville-area dealer advertised up to $12,000 off some Titans.
"Trucks got dirt-cheap," said analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in suburban Detroit. "Nine thousand dollars buys a hell of a lot of gasoline."
Still, manufacturers see the August mix as encouraging. Full-sized pickup sales rebounded to 13.2 percent of the industry last month, up from a low of 9.1 percent in May, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Small-car sales dropped from 29.0 percent in May to 22.5 percent in August.
"Lower gas prices certainly didn't hurt the situation and in fact may have kept some people that were on the fence in the (pickup) segment," Ford sales analyst George Pipas said.
Higher incentives on pickups probably allowed some of those buyers to get out of a negative-equity situation on their old truck loans, Pipas added.
While small-car sales represented a smaller chunk of the industry than in the four previous months, manufacturers said transaction prices on those vehicles are rising, and incentives are falling. Toyota said it has only a 16-day supply of the Yaris subcompact, a 24-day supply of the Corolla compact and a two-day supply of the Prius hybrid.
The mix change, plus an uptick in annualized industry sales compared with June and July, teased automakers with the possibility that the worst of the downturn may be behind them. August sales translated into a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 13.9 million vehicles, up from 12.8 million in July and 13.1 million in June.