Signs Of A Rebound, Yet The Worst Auto Market Since The 1950s

September 2, 2010
Cadillac dealership

Cadillac dealership

Some of the phrases used in headlines this week, to describe August auto sales, have been brutal: "sales slowing to a crawl," "taking a tumble," or "struggling along" were just a few.  

But they're pretty appropriate. "We saw the worst August in 28 years," looking at sales altogether, assessed Jesse Toprak, VP of industry trends at the pricing intelligence firm TrueCar.

Though the luxury-car market performed reasonably well, it wasn't enough to turn the story around. Honda sales were down 30 percent, while Nissan was down 27 percent and Hyundai posted 11-percent lower sales, all compared to last August. Even Subaru saw sales slip more than seven percent, while Toyota's sales were down by more than a third versus last August, and down 12 percent from July.

Overall, according to Toprak, when adjusted for the size of the motoring population, it's the worst August since the 1950s.

Shouldn't the 'Cash for Clunkers' hangover be over?

It wasn't at all surprising that sales were down versus last year—nearly everyone in the industry expected them to be, because of the rush surrounding last year's Cash for Clunkers program, which offered a rebate of up to $4,500 toward the purchase of certain fuel-efficient vehicles and trade-in of certain less fuel-efficient ones.  
We're over the Cash for Clunkers hangover, and there's supposedly a slow recovery afoot. But even analysts are surprised at how bad it is. "We expected the entire summer to be a little bit stronger than it is," said Jeffrey Schuster, director of global forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates. "We're still recovering."

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

All three of the Detroit automakers, meanwhile, appear to be on much better footing than they were last year, during Cash for Clunkers. Chrysler's sales figures were actually up significantly versus last August (with Jeep one of the bright spots, thanks in part to the new 2011 Grand Cherokee), and Ford jockeyed past Toyota for the number-two position in the U.S. market.

GM is back on track

Signals were mixed from General Motors, though they distilled down to a positive message. Calendar year to date, GM sales are up five percent. But versus August of last year, those four brands fell about 11 percent. Buick, GMC, and Cadillac were all up versus last year, but Chevy was down 22 percent because of Cash for Clunkers and the run for small cars like the Chevrolet Aveo and Cobalt (now being replaced by the Cruze).

Chevrolet's Camaro started to fizzle a bit as deliveries were down 27 percent versus last year's muscle-car feeding frenzy.

Buick's sales were up 263 percent from last August (when, admittedly, the brand's portfolio was smaller than it is now), while Cadillac's were up 50 percent so far this year.

Toprak said that General Motors is making "real and sustainable improvement," and learning how to make money with fewer cars sold.

"GM is on the right track," Toprak says. "It's difficult to get a clear picture, but looking at the four existing brands for GM, they are indeed improving and making tremendous strides."

Many of GM's vehicles have been selling so strong that production and delivery has come at too slow of a pace—a refreshing situation for a company that's faced oversupply for many models over the past couple of years. The 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, Toprak says, has been in especially short supply, and TrueCar has heard from several dealers who said they would have been able to sell 15 or 20 more vehicles right away, had they been in stock.

A new attitude toward incentives

While a few models are selling with few if any discounts, most automakers are still relying on hefty incentives to move metal. But overall, incentive spending is way down.

However Toprak cautions that it's easy to be misled by the numbers. "Manufacturers are now much better at optimizing their incentive spending," he said, and that means that now and this fall you're less likely to encounter broad nationwide programs covering all models; instead manufacturers will be offering substantial incentives only where it might help move slow-selling models. For full-size pickups, Toprak says, in Texas you're not going to need to offer as much incentives as in California.

2010 Ford Expedition

2010 Ford Expedition

Toprak predicts that during September and October overall incentives spending will go down slightly, though of course based on the time of year, 2010 models will continue to become more deeply discounted. Right out the gate, though, manufacturers are being smarter with 2011 models, and more careful about creating an oversupply situation.

Schuster says that there are still better deals on some of the larger SUVs as many of them have a higher profit margin built in and automakers want to keep them moving. "Gas prices might also have something to do with it,"

So much pent-up demand: What gives?

And just as there was pent-up demand in the luxury sector, there might be some evidence of pent-up demand among family shoppers. While some will drag on for an extra couple of years or more with a second car or commuter vehicle, they'll only go so long before replacing a primary family vehicle.

Meanwhile, as we reported last week, auto lenders are warming up to lower credit ratings, which should help boost sales in the mass market.

It sounds like the perfect storm for sales to rebound: signs of a recovery, luxury sales already coming back, easier credit, and targeted incentives on the slow-selling models. But somehow it's not working yet.

Ultimately, the market seems to be paralleling what's happening in the housing market in some respects—a game of "chicken" in which hesitant would-be shoppers are waiting for another Cash for Clunkers fire sale.

The housing and auto markets work in tandem, said Schuster, ebbing and flowing with the economic cycle, and we won't see a full auto recovery until the housing market comes back. And they're both in a similar holding pattern, of deferred purchases, even for those who are ready and qualified to buy. "People are looking, but they haven't pulled the trigger on a purchase just yet."

Cash for Clunkers 2010? Of course they're trying

That's led some automakers to call for a new stimulus plan. Cash for Clunkers 2010? Bring it on!

In the meantime, we're approaching one of the best holiday weekends of the year for new-car shopping. Even if you're not quite sure, take a look at TrueCar's new Best Local Price shopping feature, which compares upfront pricing, locally, and helps find the best deal. Look, and you just might find.

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