Cheaper gas is being widely credited with October’s gains in the sales of crossovers, SUVs, pickups. And no doubt, lower pump prices are figuring into consumer thinking right now.
But sometimes the easiest explanation of the month’s sales trends isn’t always the most satisfying.
Does anyone really observe that gas is suddenly down 25 cents a gallon and rush out to buy a $40,000 Chevy Silverado pickup? Isn’t it more likely that that customer was already planning to buy that truck?
Light-truck and crossover sales definitely rose in October. But so did car sales.
Especially, paradoxically, sales of cars that boast pretty decent fuel economy. In fact, sales of Nissan’s electric Leaf -- which uses zero gasoline -- increased 29 percent in a month of falling gas prices.
Might there be a common denominator that explains both?
What about incentives?
Honda has incentives on its Civic. Toyota is incentivizing the Corolla. Ford has money on the Focus. Do those incentives suggest that consumers are tiring of small, fuel-efficient cars in a season of falling gas prices, and opting instead to go buy Silverados and Ford F-150 pickups? Do Corolla buyers cross-shop Silverados?
Mark Strand, director of market intelligence at AutoTrader.com, suggests that the incentives on fresh new compact cars right now are not there to prop up a segment that’s collapsing. Rather, he says, they are there simply because the compact-car segment has become so competitive that manufacturers are just trying to get attention. A kind of advertising, Strand argues -- a thousand-dollar ante to get customers to notice your TV spot.
So, small-car sales are not eroding. They are increasing even as gas prices fall, and even as pickup sales increase.
A more satisfying explanation for all this might be to chalk it up to improving consumer confidence.
Buyers simply feel better about the economy, about themselves and their future.
Lower gas prices are an unexpected treat. And who knows how long they will stay around.
But the healing of consumer spirit is a bigger factor that will ultimately take the industry further than last month’s sales increase.