February 2013 Car Sales: Strong Despite Sequester, Payroll Tax

March 1, 2013
With the fear of automatic federal spending cuts looming over much of the nation (despite their relatively tiny impact on the overall federal budget), the end of the payroll tax holiday, and the still-recovering feel of the economy for most consumers, it would be easy to expect car sales to have taken a dip in February. It didn't happen.

With an estimated overall seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of about 15.2 million units according to J.D. Power and Associates, February was marginally weaker than January 2013, but total sales were 7 percent stronger than in February 2012. The retail sales SAAR of 12.1 million units is down from January's 13.1 million as well, but still ahead of February 2012 figures.

The impact of the Great Recession is still being felt in the auto industry, but the idea of recovery is now a "when," not an "if"--and when appears to be coming soon, with J.D. Power and Associates senior vice president of global automotive operations John Humphrey in January predicting a return to "pre-recession levels within the next few years," adding for February's sales, "we're increasingly confident that the fundamentals are in place to continue to support an upbeat sector outlook for the coming year."

February's sales weren't just more numerous than last year; they were more valuable as well. "Demand is increasing, but the automakers deserve credit for doing a much better job of keeping alignment of production and demand." said Humphrey. "This has led to new-vehicle transaction prices that are averaging nearly $1,000 more in February than the same period in 2012 while incentives have remained relatively flat year over year."

America's biggest car brands mostly saw improvement in February. General Motors rose 7 percent year-on-year; Ford was up 9 percent; Toyota gained 8.7 percent; Chrysler saw a 4 percent rise. Nissan/Infiniti saw a 6.6 percent decline, and Honda/Acura fell 2.0 percent against last year.

February's sales figures have caused LMC Automotive to revise its forecast for total 2013 light vehicle sales in the U.S. from 15.1 million to 15.3 million units, with the retail sales forecast rising from 12.4 to 12.5 million units.

"The current fundamentals that are driving strong vehicle sales--pent-up vehicle demand and a stable, recovering economy--are expected to get a boost by additional positive factors this year. An expected recovery in the housing market, and 50 percent more new-model launches combined with an increase in lease maturities should keep light-vehicle sales climbing throughout the year," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive.

The detailed sales figures, as reported by the automakers:

General Motors: GM [NYSE:GM] sold 224,314 cars and trucks in February, a 7.2 percent increase over February 2012. Retail sales accounted for 74.8 percent of total sales, with fleet sales holding steady against a year ago. Each brand under the GM umbrella saw gains in February: Chevrolet sold 158,541 vehicles to rise 4.9 percent; GMC was up 9.8 percent on 35.778 vehicles sold; Buick sold 16,150 vehicles and gained 15.2 percent; and Cadillac was up 20.3 percent with 13,845 vehicles sold. GM notes crossover sales increased 17 percent and truck sales grew 14 percent, but car sales were down 4 percent.

Ford: Ford [NYSE: F] moved 195,822 vehicles in February, a rise of 9 percent. The Ford brand accounted for 190,939 sales and a 10.9 percent increase against last year. The Lincoln brand sold just 4,883 cars for the month, a decrease of 29.4 percent compared to February 2012. The Car Connection's 2013 Best Car To Buy, the 2013 Ford Fusion, gained 28 percent for a total of 27,875 units sold. The iconic Mustang dropped 18.1 percent to 6,024 units, while the F-Series pickups rose 15.3 percent to 54,489 units.

Toyota / Lexus / Scion: Toyota's overall sales of 166,377 mark an 8.7 percent rise. Within that total, Lexus sales of 17,339 vehicles scored an 8.3 percent increase. The Toyota brand's best-seller in February was the Corolla at 24,999 units, a 17.6 increase over a year ago. The hot new Scion FR-S sold 1,369 units. On the Lexus side, the ES is the big seller, with a 67.4 percent increase to 4,817 units. The discontinued Lexus HS hybrid sold just a single unit in February--half the number of LFA supercars sold.

Chrysler: Chrysler marked its 35th consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains in February, with a total of 139,015 vehicles sold, a 4 percent increase over a year ago. Dodge brand vehicle sales rose 30 percent for the month for a total of 55,639 units, leading Chrysler's marques. The Ram Truck brand saw gains of just 3 percent with 23,827 sales, and Fiat rose 2 percent on 3,302 units. The Chrysler brand was up 21 percent against January 2013, but down 7 percent against February 2012 at 25,083 vehicles sold, and the Jeep brand fell 16 percent from a year ago to 31,164 units.

Honda / Acura: Moving 107,987 vehicles in February, Honda fell 2.0 percent in total volume compared to last year, but gains 2.1 percent based on the Daily Selling Rate (DSR). The Honda brand saw a 1.8 percent rise based on the DSR, but 2.3 percent overall decline. Acura increased 0.9 percent overall and 5.1 percent based on the DSR for total sales of 11,364 vehicles. The top-selling vehicle for Honda was the Accord, up 35.2 percent to 27,999, while Acura's best was the MDX at 2,575 units.

Nissan / Infiniti: One of the few overall decreases in February, Nissan's sales fell 6.6 percent overall against record sales in February 2012. Total vehicles sold tallied 99,636, of which the Nissan brand accounted for 90,489, and Infiniti 9,147. Highlights amidst the decline include the Pathfinder, rising 145.6 percent to 7,014 units; the Versa, up 28.6 percent to 13,100 units; and the all-electric LEAF, up 36.6 percent to 653 units as it switches from Japanese-built 2012 to Tennesee-built 2013 model-year production. Infiniti-brand sales were led by the JX crossover (2,300 units) and QX SUV (1,059 units).

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