Even the most optimistic forecasts for U.S. auto sales in March concede that the industry had its worst first quarter since at least 2015. In fact, it's expected to be the first time sales fell below 4 million vehicles in any three-month period over the past four years, amid tepid incentives, faltering consumer confidence and tighter credit availability.
Slightly smaller IRS refund checks as a result of the tax-reform law passed by Congress in December 2017 also hindered dealership traffic, according to Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive.
"Consumers simply haven't had a compelling reason to buy," Smoke said last week.
Cox projects that March sales, scheduled to be reported Tuesday, April 2, will be down 6.7 percent from a year ago. Other forecasts call for a smaller decline, but there's little evidence that the industry fared better than a year ago, when it posted its second-best March ever.
The market's weakening could halt — soon, if not in March — Subaru's streak of consecutive year-over-year sales gains that began in December 2011. Cox estimates that Subaru's March sales declined 0.2 percent, and Subaru of America CEO Tom Doll said on Bloomberg Television last week that "there's no question" the 87-month streak is in jeopardy if the Trump administration levies tariffs on imported vehicles, causing prices to rise.