Light trucks and heavy summer promotions drove up July auto sales to their second strongest pace in nearly 10 years. And as the U.S. industry awaits a wave of new and updated product, that performance is lifting hopes that 2015 could near the industry's all-time sales record.
Among the fresh offerings are a refreshed Nissan Altima, a redesigned Honda Civic, Toyota's updated Tacoma pickup and the redesigned Lexus RX, the luxury brand's top-selling model. General Motors, which reported strong sales of full-size and midsize pickups, expects to see its midsize car sales jump when it begins shipping the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu, due in showrooms in the fall.
"We're pretty much on track for the second best year in history," said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. After July's sales were tabulated, Caldwell raised her 2015 sales forecast to 17.2 million vehicles from 16.8 million. The industry's record is 17.4 million cars and light trucks, set in 2000.
There's still more coming in some hot and high-volume segments: Lincoln's new MKX crossover is landing in dealerships now, and a refreshed Honda Accord is scheduled to roll out in a few weeks. An updated Hyundai Sonata, featuring Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone connectivity, is also on tap.
John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda, said his company's sales should be helped by the new iron.
"I think the Accord is going to be a strong addition," he said. And the redesign showcased at the New York auto show in April "should really reignite the Civic in the market as we come into the fourth quarter."
In July, light-vehicle sales rose 5.3 percent, paced by light-truck sales, which jumped 13 percent, offsetting a 2.7 percent drop in car sales. Ford Motor Co., Nissan North America, American Honda Motor Co., GM, Fiat Chrysler and Hyundai-Kia all had gains between 5 and 8 percent, while Subaru scored its sixth double-digit advance of the year.
The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate jumped to 17.55 million, the second highest level since January 2006. The only higher spike came in May, when the SAAR reached 17.69 million.
The SAAR now has topped 17 million in four out of seven months this year, and the arrival of new products could help it stay there.
The impact of fresh product already has been pronounced this year. The introduction of a redesigned Golf family helped reverse Volkswagen's slide in the U.S. Combined Golf sales, including those of the high-performance Golf R and electric e-Golf, were 6,717 in July, more than double the level of July 2014. VW has posted three straight monthly increases in sales after a long, nearly uninterrupted, losing streak.
Lexus' NX crossover, introduced a year ago, powered the brand to the front of the luxury race in July and has put it well within striking distance of Mercedes-Benz and BMW for the year. (See story, above.)
Light trucks continue to dominate the vehicle mix across the industry as gasoline prices remain low and a favorable credit environment makes it easier for consumers to purchase larger vehicles.
July marked the 19th consecutive month that light trucks outsold cars, with pickups and crossovers the two fastest-growing product segments. Most SUV segments are selling faster than cars, though many large SUVs struggled in July and generated lower volumes.
"This feels like more of a real 17-million-plus month and not one based on calendar quirks," Mark Wakefield, AlixPartners' auto analyst, said of the better-than-expected July sales. "There's nothing special about July except that there's really nothing bad happening. So consumers who aren't worried and respond to the positive factors like jobs and economic growth and low gas prices."
Automakers expressed confidence that the sales pace will continue above the 17-million-vehicle mark in August.
Fred Diaz, Nissan's senior vice president for U.S. sales and marketing, said: "I see no reason for us to doubt we're going to have a SAAR at 17 million or higher."