U.S. light-vehicle sales dropped 1.7 percent in March as decreases at Ford, Honda, Toyota, FCA, Hyundai and Kia overshadowed gains at Nissan and General Motors, even amid higher spending on discounts.
The results suggest the auto industry -- despite strong truck demand -- is losing momentum heading into the key spring selling season after seven consecutive years of gains. The seasonally adjusted, annualized sales rate fell to 16.6 million, well below a forecast of 17.2 million and the lowest pace of sales since February 2015. The SAAR was 16.66 million in March 2016 and 17.57 million in February and January.
Overall, light-truck deliveries jumped 5.4 percent last month while car sales skidded 11 percent.
Before Monday's reports, U.S. light-vehicle sales for March were projected to rise to their highest level for the month since 2000, according to analysts’ forecasts.
After hitting a record high of 17.54 million in 2016, capped by a very strong December, U.S. auto sales have dropped 1.6 percent this year through March, even as automakers dangle fatter discounts.
A 3.2 percent increase at Nissan kept its 2017 winning streak alive, while GM climbed for a second consecutive month. Ford, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai and Kia are still seeking their first monthly gains of the year, while American Honda fell for the first time.
GM initially pegged March’s SAAR at 17 million but said later Monday it was tracking at 16.7 million based on results from other automakers, as well as lower than expected fleet shipments at GM and Ford.
"We believe strong car-buying fundamentals are reflected in the retail component of the light vehicle SAAR, which was 13.8 million in March, up 0.1 million versus a year ago," a GM spokesman said.
Nissan Motor Co. benefited from strong demand for crossovers, a double-digit increase in incentives and a big jump at Infiniti.
Volume edged up 0.5 percent at the Nissan brand and 33 percent at Infiniti. The automaker said car volume dropped 15 percent while truck sales surged 29 percent, with record truck volume of 77,258 at the Nissan brand.
ALG estimates Nissan’s average incentive on new vehicles rose to $4,074 last month, 18 percent higher than a year earlier.
At GM, sales edged up 1.6 percent on a 5 percent rise in retail sales and a 21 percent increase in incentive spending. (See chart below.) Volume rose 12 percent at GMC and 15 percent at Buick but slipped 2.2 percent at Chevrolet and 1.5 percent at Cadillac.
Sales dropped 7.2 percent at Ford Motor Co. The automaker recorded a 17 percent drop in fleet shipments, 24 percent plunge in car sales and a 1.5 percent dip in retail demand. Sales declined 7.4 percent at the Ford division and 1.4 percent at Lincoln, ending a seven-month streak of gains for the luxury brand.
Honda Motor Co. posted a slight decline in March as record truck demand failed to overcome weaker car volume and sharply lower Acura deliveries.
Sales at the Honda brand rose 1.8 percent but dropped 21 percent at Acura.
American Honda said its truck sales rose 8.4 percent, setting a March record at the Honda division -- 61,975, up 13 percent -- while car demand skidded 8.7 percent, with Accord deliveries dropping 12 percent and Civic volume down 4 percent.
At Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, sales declined 4.4 percent as demand fell for a seventh straight month. Jeep, which had been the automaker’s post-recession mainstay, was down 11 percent and hasn’t seen a sales gain since August. The Chrysler and Fiat brands were also down, while Dodge and Ram were up.
Toyota Motor Corp.’s 2.1 percent decline marked its smallest setback of the year. The Toyota division slipped 1.2 percent, while Lexus dropped 7.5 percent.
Hyundai's sales dropped 10 percent, its fourth consecutive decline, and Kia posted its third straight monthly decline, with volume off 15 percent.
Among other automakers, deliveries rose 11 percent at Subaru, the brand's 64th consecutive gain, 2.7 percent at Volkswagen, 4.9 percent at Mazda and 6.2 percent at Mitsubishi. It was the fourth straight monthly gain for the VW brand as it slowly rebounds from emissions violations that have sidelined U.S. sales of diesel models.