Behind a big hit in March, U.S. light-vehicle sales fell an estimated 13 percent in the first quarter, underscoring the sudden, negative and sweeping impact the coronavirus dealt automakers and dealers as Americans hunker down at home.
Four of the biggest automakers -- Ford Motor Co., FCA US, Honda Motor Co., and Nissan Motor Corp. -- posted declines of 10 percent or more in the first three months, while volume dropped less at General Motors, Toyota Motor Corp. and Hyundai Group.
In a closer snapshot of how the epidemic quickly upended the industry, volume last month dropped 37 percent at Toyota, leaving it down 8.8 percent for the first quarter, 48 percent at American Honda, and 43 percent at Hyundai, one of the hottest brands over the last 24 months.
Among other automakers, March deliveries skidded 19 percent at Kia, 47 percent at Subaru, 42 percent at Mazda and 52 percent at Mitsubishi.
After hovering around 17 million for most of 2019 and the first two months of the year, the seasonally adjusted annualized rate of sales fell to 11.35 million in March, Motor Intelligence said, the lowest level since April 2010, when the SAAR tallied 11.25 million as industry was slowly rebounding from the Great Recession.
The overall first-quarter results for the industry, compiled by the Automotive News Data Center, include an estimated 17 percent decline in Jaguar Land Rover volume. The company, which reported a 2.6 percent gain in U.S. sales in 2019, is not expected to release first-quarter results.
Cold winter ahead
What was shaping up to be a solid spring selling season, with industry sales rising 4 percent in the first two months, has become a cold winter for new-car dealers and automakers as the viral outbreak spreads across the U.S. and authorities weigh how soon to lift restrictions and restart the economy.
Over the last three weeks, some 16.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, casting a dark cloud over prospects for a recovery. And on Thursday, a closely watched reading of consumer confidence by the University of Michigan plummeted to its lowest level since 2011, signaling a pullback in household spending that could prompt more job losses if more businesses shut down.
"Everyone is basically holding their breath for April," said Mark Wakefield, global co-head of the automotive and industrial practice at AlixPartners, adding the consulting and turnaround specialist has lowered its forecast for 2020 U.S. sales to 13.5 million units. "We do think the market comes back sharply but not where it was."
Sales dropped 7.1 percent at GM in the first three months, with the company citing "significant declines in March" across the industry because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
At Ford, volume dropped 13 percent and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported a 10 percent decline in first-quarter sales as a virus-impacted March more than offset gains in January and February. At Nissan, volume skidded 30 percent in the first three months.
Only three brands -- Ram, up 2.5 percent; Kia, up 1 percent; and Lincoln, up 2.3 percent -- escaped the first quarter with gains.
"The entire world is facing a tremendous challenge that is having a significant impact on business and our normal way of life,” Randy Parker, head of sales for Hyundai Motor America, said in a statement. “Tough days are ahead but we’re doing all we can to position the company to survive this and return to the growth trajectory we’ve been on.”
General Motors, the first automaker to roll out 0 percent financing for 84 months when shutdown orders gained momentum in mid March, said first-quarter volume fell 3.8 percent at Chevrolet, 5.5 percent at GMC, 35 percent at Buick and 16 percent at Cadillac. The company's inventory at the end of the first quarter stood at 668,443 units, down about 18 percent from a year ago.
While higher crossover and SUV demand, notably the Aviator, drove Lincoln to a first-quarter gain, a 38 percent drop in car deliveries was behind the Ford division's 13 percent decline during the period. Overall, Ford Motor Co. said car deliveries dropped 36 percent during the quarter, while SUV volume dropped 11 percent and truck demand dropped 5.4 percent.
March sales at Toyota dropped behind a 35 percent decline at the Toyota division and 47 percent skid at Lexus, with every model across the two brands posting year-over-year monthly declines of 22 percent or more. Sales of the RAV4 compact crossover slid 25 percent last month and Camry deliveries dropped 31 percent.
At FCA US, Ram was the only brand with a first-quarter gain -- 2.5 percent. Volume fell 14 percent at Jeep, 20 percent at Dodge, 5 percent at Chrysler, 49 percent at Fiat and 14 percent at Alfa Romeo. Fleet shipments represented 31 percent of FCA's first-quarter volume.
The automaker on Wednesday launched a new round of special incentives, including 0 percent financing for 84 months and no payments for 90 days on select 2019 and 2020 vehicles.
American Honda, another automaker that outpaced the overall market in 2019 and in recent months, suffered a 48 percent decline at the Honda brand and 51 percent drop at Acura, with several core models down sharply. U.S. deliveries of the Honda CR-V slid 47 percent while Civic and Accord demand fell 46 percent each.
"After a strong start to the year, industry sales are going to suffer in the short term, and we have suspended auto production as part of our effort to carefully manage our business in the face of the steep decline in demand,” Steven Center, head of automobile sales at American Honda, said in a statement.
First-quarter U.S. sales slid 30 percent at the Nissan division and 26 percent at Infiniti, with combined car demand down 37 percent and light trucks off 24 percent, adding to the challenges at a company trying to overcome a mostly older product lineup and management turnover at the top.
First-quarter sales at Volkswagen Group's VW brand slid 13 percent while Porsche, which generated record U.S. deliveries in 2019, said first-quarter volume dropped 20 percent to 11,994, threatening to end the luxury brand's steady growth over the past decade. Audi deliveries dropped 14 percent in the first three months.