U.S. light-vehicle sales, hurt by a slump in car demand, slipped 1.1 percent in February as higher incentives and Presidents' Day promotions failed to help the industry rebound from a decline in January volume.
But the seasonally adjusted annual sales remained strong at 17.57 million, in line with forecasts and on par with the record pace of 2016, leaving some automakers optimistic heading into the spring selling season.
“Industry sales in February topped a 17 million unit pace for the eighth straight month,” said Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota division.
Yet some analysts believe the market has reached a turning point because of rising incentives and inventories, especially on the car side, where industry sales continue to fall. Car sales skidded 13 percent last month while light truck deliveries advanced 7 percent.
“Today’s retail and wholesale environments are considerably different from what they were several years ago," said Tom Libby, head of automotive industry analysis at IHS Markit. "Dealers and manufacturers now need to use more tactics such as aggressive conquest programs, cash incentives and attractive financing terms to achieve year-over-year sales increases, and we can expect more of this as the year progresses.”
Who's up, down
GM sales rose 4.2 percent and Nissan climbed 3.7 percent. American Honda also posted a 2.3 percent gain, led by a 15 percent boost in trucks, crossovers and SUVs. Mazda was up as well, while Audi was among several brands with double-digit gains.
Ford, meanwhile, recorded its fourth decline in the last six months. A 10 percent drop at Fiat Chrysler marked its sixth straight monthly setback. Sales also slipped 7.2 percent at Toyota Motor behind a 5.4 percent dip at the Toyota brand and a 21 percent decline at Lexus. Overall, Toyota Motor said combined Toyota and Lexus car demand slipped 17 percent last month.
GM’s February increase reflected gains of 3.4 percent at Chevrolet and 17 percent at GMC. Sales slipped 9.4 percent at Buick and 8.6 percent at Cadillac. GM said its retail deliveries rose 5 percent as the company dials back on fleet shipments for the third year in a row.
Nissan saw deliveries edge up 1.2 percent at the Nissan brand and soar 33 percent at Infiniti. Nissan said sales of crossovers, pickups and SUVs set a February record of 61,870, a gain of 22 percent.
Ford Motor recorded a 4 percent decline in February, with higher light-truck volume failing to overcome a steep drop in car deliveries. Volume dropped 4.5 percent at the Ford division but rose 8.8 percent at Lincoln. Ford said its car sales slipped 24 percent, while demand rose 5.8 percent for SUVs and 3.9 percent for pickups.
FCA recorded a 10 percent drop as a 4 percent gain at Ram was overrun by a 15 percent drop at Jeep, a 28 percent plunge at the Chrysler brand and a 7 percent decline at Dodge.
Volkswagen sales rose 13 percent, the fourth straight monthly gain as the brand slowly recovers from emissions violations that have curbed diesel sales.
Audi set a February high mark for U.S. sales, with volume rising 17 percent to 13,741 behind strong truck demand. It was the luxury brand's 74th straight monthly record.
Among other luxury brands, volume rose 0.3 percent at BMW, 2.1 percent at Porsche, 7.2 percent at Mercedes and 130 percent at Jaguar. Sales dropped 10 percent at Land Rover and 12 percent at Volvo.
Subaru set another February record with deliveries of 45,500, for a gain of 8.3 percent, and the brand's 63rd straight month of year over year gains. Sales fell 14 percent at Kia, but rose 5.9 percent at Mazda and 39 percent at Mitsubishi.
It was a dismal month for car sales across the board, with combined sedan and coupe volume down more than 21 percent at each of the Detroit 3, 17 percent at Toyota Motor, 12 percent at Nissan and 11 percent at Hyundai-Kia, as U.S. consumers continue to embrace light trucks, notably crossovers. At American Honda, car deliveries slid 7.1 percent.
After U.S. sales rose 3 percent to a record 1.688 million in December, deliveries slipped 1.9 percent in January. The results for February -- traditionally one of the weakest months for volume -- keep the industry on par with the record-setting sales of 17.55 million in 2016. Year-to-date sales are off 1.5 percent through February.
Forecasters differ on whether the industry has the momentum to post a third consecutive year of record sales.