Car sales hit the skids in September, as the major automakers saw double-digit gains from summer turn to single digits--and head in the wrong direction, in some cases.
Numbers are trending downward for many mass-market nameplates as the Federal government shutdown enters its first day, the culmination of a political battle over funding for the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Among the Big Six automakers, Ford and Chrysler eked out single-digit gains--while General Motors watched sales drop by 11 percent, and Nissan fell 5.5 percent. Toyota was up 4 percent--but without accounting for fewer selling days last month, its sales actually fell 4.3 percent.
MORE: See Green Car Reports' detailed look at September sales of electric cars.
Some highlights of September's sales report: Volkswagen was off more than 12 percent, while Audi sales rose more than 6 percent.
Sales slip into fall
For most of the summer, automakers had posted strong sales gains, hinged on the continued slow recovery of the economy, the availability of easier car financing, and the proliferation of brand-new models, including new pickups from Chevy and GMC and new family sedans still in their first year on sale.
Politics of the day aside, some of the real drivers behind this month's drop are anomalies of the calendar. September's short on days versus August, and includes the Labor Day holiday weekend.
More troubling, it could be the first round of the endgame between low-interest loans and higher car prices.
Low interest rates have kept sales percolating for most of the summer, though rates have climbed some from near-historic lows. The national average rate for a 48-month new car loan is now 2.82 percent according to Bankrate.com, up slightly over the year's trend.
At the same time, new-car prices are still rising. According to pricing site Truecar, the average car price in September was $31,854, up 5.2 percent or $1,572 over the same period last year, and up more than $600 from the month before.
The gradual change in fundamentals hasn't substantially altered sales outlooks for the year yet--although with sales having reached a post-recession peak last month, this month's numbers are sure to set off a new round of introspection, and possibly, of incentives. J.D. Power and LMC Automotive still are forecasting a 2-percent gain for sales in September--with the seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) for September 2013 at 15.2 million vehicles, down from August's 16.1 million. LMC predicts sales to settle in at 15.6 million units for the year.
Will the industry shake off this early fall, or head down a slower path to recovery? The September numbers shed a little light, automaker by automaker:
General Motors: GM [NYSE:GM] sold 187,195 vehicles in September, and that was not good news. The numbers were down 11 percent from the same period in 2012, and left GM just a few thousand sales higher than crosstown rival Ford. Buick sales at 15,623 units were up 6.5 percent, and Cadillac posted a 9.9-percent gain with 13,828 units sold--but Chevy (127,785 units) was off 14.7 percent and GMC (29,959 units) fell 9.7 percent.
Ford: Ford Motor Co. [NYSE:F] sold 185,146 vehicles in September, for the strongest gain of any domestic automaker, up 6 percent. The Fusion posted a 62-percent sales gain at 19,972 units, and the F-Series trucks blew away expectations at 60,456 units (up 10 percent). Focus sales were off 15.2 percent, and Lincoln dropped 5.1 percent to 6,543 units--though the MKZ sedan was up 12 percent.
Toyota / Lexus / Scion: The Toyota Motor Company [NYSE:TM] group--including Toyota, Lexus, and Scion brands--sold 164,457 units in September, according to preliminary figures released by the company. The numbers rose just 4 percent on an adjusted basis; on an unadjusted basis, sales were off 4.3 percent. Lexus' September sales of 19,522 units represented a 4.1-percent increase on an adjusted basis, and a 4.2-percent decrease on an unadjusted basis.
Chrysler: Chrysler Group LLC posted total sales of 143,017 units in September, up a weak 1 percent over the same month in 2012. While the Jeep Compass and Patriot set records, and the Dodge Durango rose 66 percent, it couldn't help Jeep (down 5 percent) or Dodge (up just 3 percent) much. Ram sales rose 8 percent, with Chrysler-brand vehicles up 2 percent. Fiat fell to its first year-over-year sales drop, off 24 percent despite the launch of the new 500L compact hatchback.
Honda / Acura: American Honda Motor Co. [NYSE:HMC] sales were down 9.9 percent to 105,563 units, on unadjusted basis, down 2.1 percent adjusted. The Honda brand accounted for 93,915 units, down 8.7 percent; Acura sold 11,648 vehicles, off 18.7 percent. Honda's mainstays held strong: the company sold 25,176 Accord coupes and sedans to keep it up on the year by 13.8 percent, though it was off by 6 percent for the month; the Civic tallied 22,983 sales, up 6.7 percent for the month.
Nissan / Infiniti: Nissan Motor Company [NASDAQ:NSANY] said its September sales of 86,868 are off 5.5 percent from the year prior, with the Nissan brand off 5.6 percent. At 1,953 units, sales of the electric Leaf hatchback were up 99 percent on the month. The Nissan Rogue -- to live on as the Rogue Select -- explained that unusual decision for itself by moving 11,353 units in September. The Nissan Pathfinder was up 72.8 percent on the month, to 5,537 units. Infiniti sales were off 4.3 percent to 9,040 units.