September delivered the best U.S. monthly sales rate in 13 months. But the industry isn't doing it with retail sales.
Fleet sales are the growth engine of the U.S. auto market, according to automakers' internal documents obtained by Automotive News.
In the third quarter, strong fleet overcame soft retail as automakers outsold the 2009 quarter, which included the cash-for-clunkers program.
"Fleet is still the driver -- it certainly isn't the consumer," said analyst George Magliano of IHS Automotive. "Fleet has backed off a bit from the first half, but it's still strong. The retail side is still a bit weak."
"Fleet" refers to vehicles bought by daily rental, commercial and government agencies.
Collectively, General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Chrysler Group, Hyundai-Kia Automotive and Nissan North America sold 2.3 million units in the third quarter, up 1 percent. Combined retail sales fell 4 percent to 1.8 million, but fleet volume surged 24 percent to 461,786 units according to the company documents.
Excluding GM, every one of those automakers saw fleet sales jump by double- or triple-digit percentages.
GM's fleet sales dropped 2 percent for the quarter, but fleet volume still was 26 percent of its total sales, the documents reveal.
Don Johnson, GM's vice president of sales, told reporters recently that GM will reduce fleet sales in the fourth quarter and expects to end the year with fleet at about 25 percent of its mix, the same as in 2009.
For the six major players that actively manage fleet sales -- officially, American Honda Motor Co. does not -- higher fleet sales overcame a slight drop in retail in the third quarter.
Two automakers stood out.
In the third quarter, Chrysler increased fleet as a proportion of total sales to 34 percent, from 25 percent a year earlier. But that was down from a first-half mix of 39 percent fleet.
And Nissan more than tripled third-quarter fleet volume to 14,076, or 6 percent of total volume.
Nissan is trying to retake the No. 6 U.S. sales spot that Hyundai-Kia controls after nine months. Nissan, with 673,701 units sold this year, narrowly trails Hyundai-Kia, with 678,071.
Ford solidified its lead over Toyota for the No. 2 overall U.S. sales spot, finishing the quarter up 8 percent with 488,787 sales.
Ford's fleet mix was 26 percent in the third quarter, up from 23 percent a year ago.
Ford chief sales analyst George Pipas said clunkers makes year-over-year comparisons difficult but the auto market, in general, is doing better.
"It's positive that retail sales are off just a little from a period with an extremely popular incentive," Pipas said.
"Without clunkers a year ago, then the industry's third quarter [this year] would have been up for both fleet and retail."