U.S. auto sales, dragged down by declines at Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Nissan and Toyota, fell in October for the third consecutive month. However, the month’s selling rate was the strongest of 2016 so far.
Industry light-vehicle deliveries for the month fell 5.9 percent to 1,370,721 cars and light trucks. Sales in the first 10 months of the year fell behind 2015’s pace, slipping 0.3 percent to 14,472,007 vehicles. Through September, the industry was just 0.3 percent ahead of its 2015 sales pace.
Ford, which reported sales Wednesday after a one-day delay caused by a fire at its headquarters, posted a 12 percent decline. Its market share was the lowest since 2008.
But the seasonally adjusted annualized sales rate for October came in at 17.98 million vehicles. That is down from a SAAR of 18.2 million in October 2015, the highest pace of sales during the current cycle. The SAAR last month, however, exceeded forecasts.
General Motors' volume fell 1.7 percent as it continued to emphasize sales to individual customers over fleet deliveries. Nissan Motor Co. was down 2.2 percent while American Honda Motor Co. dropped 4.2 percent and Toyota Motor Corp. lost 8.7 percent. FCA US's 10 percent fall included a second straight monthly dip at Jeep, one of the industry's hottest brands.
“If anyone needed confirmation that the U.S. auto market is slowing, they got it with the October sales results," said Jack R. Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "Sales have become harder to come by and more expensive (higher incentives) over the past few months."
To reach the 17.5 million sales mark in 2016, and eclipse 2015's record volume, the light-vehicle SAAR will need to average 18.3 million for the last two months of the year, Well Fargo analyst Richard Kwas said.
While some automakers and analysts hold out hope for a record or near-record sales year, after six years of growth, Nerad said there is very little hope that 2016 will beat 2015’s sales level, "especially when there is the likelihood of an interest-rate hike prior to the end of the year.”
Only four automakers managed to advance last month: Subaru, Mitsubishi, Hyundai-Kia and Jaguar Land Rover. JLR's gain came despite a 23 percent setback at Land Rover.
“Key fundamentals like job security, rising personal incomes, low fuel prices and low interest rates continue to provide the environment for a very healthy U.S. auto industry,” GM's chief economist Mustafa Mohatarem said in a statement. “The U.S. auto industry is well positioned for sales to continue at or near record levels for the foreseeable future.”
Company by company
Ford, which had warned that demand would soften later in the year, reported the largest decline of the volume automakers. Overall sales fell 12 percent. The Ford brand was down 13 percent. But Lincoln was up 6.9 percent, driven by the MKZ sedan, MKX crossover and incremental volume from the new Continental sedan.
GM's deliveries dropped 0.8 percent at Chevrolet, 6.2 percent at GMC and 9.4 percent at Cadillac, while volume rose 7.4 percent at Buick.
GM said its retail sales rose 2.5 percent last month while daily rental shipments dropped by approximately 8,000 vehicles, or about 19 percent, compared to last year. October marked the seventh-straight monthly decline for GM.
Sales at Nissan’s namesake division were down 2.5 percent, while Infiniti was up 0.6 percent. Nissan-brand trucks surged 13 percent, aided by low fuel prices, while cars were off 15 percent.
At FCA, only Ram gained ground, with a 12 percent increase. Among FCA’s other brands, only Jeep -- down 6.6 percent -- managed to limit its decline to single digits.
Acura was the big drag at American Honda, down 20 percent. The Honda brand, despite a 2 percent October drop, remains 4.3 percent ahead of its 10-month pace of 2015.
The Volkswagen brand, 13 months into its diesel-emissions crisis, fell for a 12th-straight month. The latest plunge was one of the biggest in that stretch: 19 percent. Mazda was also among the double-digit decliners, off 11 percent.
Subaru, benefiting from strong crossover demand, saw sales grow 4.1 percent to 53,760 vehicles last month. October marked the 59th consecutive month of yearly month-over-month increases, the company said.
Sales of the Crosstrek, Forester and Outback crossovers set a new record for October, the company said.
“With four consecutive months of sales exceeding 50,000 vehicles, we have the momentum to achieve our eighth consecutive all-time sales record in 2016,” said Tom Doll, president of Subaru of America.
Trucks continued to set the pace for the industry last month while cars continued to struggle. American Honda said the Honda and Acura brands each set October sales records for light trucks. Nissan said it set an October record for crossover, truck and SUV volume.
In some cases, notably large pickups, fatter deals drove light-truck volume higher last month.
“Light trucks remained the hottest segment for the industry in October,” said Bill Fay, general manager of the Toyota Division.
But in the huge midsize sedan segment, the declines were prominent: Toyota's Camry, off 15 percent; the Honda Accord, down 15 percent; Ford Fusion, dropping 21 percent; and Nissan Altima volume dipped 3.3 percent. At GM, sales of the Buick Regal fell 20 percent and the Chevrolet Malibu slipped 35 percent.
Overall, U.S. light-truck sales jumped 1.1 percent in October while car demand slumped 16 percent.
There were two fewer selling days last month compared with October 2015. And Hurricane Matthew likely put a small dent in deliveries throughout the Southeast, some analyst said.
Analysts and automakers say sales to individual customers have peaked after six consecutive years of growth and that higher industry volume will only be supported by additional fleet deliveries.
Even with fatter discounts, retail sales, a key measure of consumer demand, are projected to total 1,099,200 vehicles in October, the sixth time in the past eight months that volume has fallen on a year-over-year basis, J.D. Power says.
As retail demand slips, automakers are counting on low interest rates, widespread credit availability and modest economic growth to support volumes well into 2017.
Well Fargo's Kwas, citing “channel” checks, said the last week of October, including the weekend, was softer than expected.
“We anticipate retail to be weak, but fleet to be stronger year over year,” Kwas said in a report Monday.
UBS analyst Colin Langan, citing a survey of dealers, said in a report late last week that uncertainty surrounding the U.S. presidential election is also casting a cloud over consumer demand for new cars.
To help gauge post-election sales, UBS found that dealers, on average, believe that Democrat Hillary Clinton as president would result “in a moderate negative” in auto demand, while Republican Donald Trump would be “a slight positive.”