U.S. sales of light vehicles slipped 4 percent last month as automakers were dragged down by a quirk in the industry’s reporting schedule and signs of skittish consumers.
Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group were the only major automakers in the winners’ column, where they were joined by Subaru, BMW Group and Jaguar Land Rover. Sales fell at General Motors, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and the Hyundai-Kia Group.
The seasonally-adjusted sales rate (SAAR) a broad measure of the industry’s health — rose to 15.3 million units last month from 14.8 million in September 2012. Still, it was the weakest SAAR reading since April’s 15.2 million rate.
The results were in line with analysts’ forecasts for the first monthly decline in U.S. demand since May 2011.
The drop-off was attributed primarily to a calendar oddity that counted Labor Day holiday weekend sales in August, but some automakers said they also detected pockets of consumer jitters.
Several analysts suggested some automakers were also hurt by low inventories on some models after robust August sales. September’s results came on the heels of a 16.1 million SAAR in August, the industry’s strongest performance since late 2007.
Even with the September setback, analysts and automakers believe the industry remains on pace to post the largest annual sales total this year since the recession.
The SAAR has now topped 15 million units every month beginning with November 2012.
Ford’s sales rose 6 percent and Chrysler was up 1 percent, extending its streak of consecutive monthly gains to 42. Toyota Motor Sales fell 4 percent, Nissan was down 6 percent, Honda slipped 10 percent, and GM dropped 11 percent while outselling rival Ford by only 2,743 light vehicles.
GM’s September skid marked its first drop since July 2012, with Chevrolet volume down 15 percent and GMC off 10 percent. Deliveries rose 7 percent at Buick and 10 percent at Cadillac.
GM officials blamed the decline on a 6 percent drop in retail volume and a 27 percent decrease in fleet shipments. Sales of GM’s big pickups also dropped. GM also cited a drop in the timing of fleet deliveries and the fact that September had two fewer selling days than it did last year.
Ford said deliveries rose to 184,452 units, with sales at the Ford division climbing 6 percent. Demand slipped 5 percent at Lincoln. Ford’s car sales rose 14 percent, fueled by robust deliveries of the Fusion and Fiesta.
F-series pickup volume, helped by incentives up to $5,000 or more in some markets, jumped 10 percent to 60,456, marking the fifth consecutive month sales have topped 60,000 units.
Toyota’s 4 percent decline left it with sales of 164,457 last month, the company said.
At Honda, sales at the Honda division slipped 9 percent while Acura volume dropped 19 percent. Demand for Honda’s four core models was mixed, with sales of the Civic compact and CR-V crossover rising, but Accord and Odyssey minivan posting a drop in deliveries.
Chrysler’s 1 percent gain came from a 3 percent advance in car deliveries. Light-truck volume was flat.
Sales rose 8 percent at Ram, 3 percent at Dodge and 2 percent at the Chrysler brand. Volume slumped 24 percent at Fiat and 5 percent at Jeep.
Deliveries of the Ram pickup — one of Chrysler’s most profitable vehicles and a top volume performer in a hot segment this year — rose 8 percent to 28,145 units last month.
Sales at Jeep are off 3 percent this year and continue to be hampered by the discontinuation of the Jeep Liberty in 2012 and the delayed launch of its replacement, the 2014 Cherokee.
Chrysler planned to begin selling the new Cherokee in the third quarter but software glitches have forced the company to postpone dealer shipments.
At Nissan Motor, Nissan brand volume was off 6 percent and Infiniti sales were down 4 percent.
Among other automakers, U.S. sales last month rose 15 percent at Subaru, 1 percent at Jaguar Land Rover and 13 percent at Porsche. Mitsubishi Motors North America said September sales slid 17 percent to 4,001 units.
Volkswagen Group of America, which is based in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, is already seeing the effects of the government shutdown in areas with an outsized number of federal employees. U.S. sales declined 12 percent in September at the VW brand. Just two VW nameplates — the Beetle and the Tiguan crossover — sold better than the previous September. Sales of the Jetta and Passat sedans, the brand’s best sellers, were down 9 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
Sister brand Audi posted a 6 percent sales increase. The A4 model line returned to its historic position as Audi’s best-seller with a surprising 29 percent jump in sales, but the Q5 model line also stayed hot with a 45 percent increase. It accounts for 25 percent of Audi’s sales this year while the A4 accounts for 24 percent.
GM’s McNeil said the government shutdown should not affect sales in the short term, but “if the thing drags out a couple weeks,” then “it starts to more impact customer sentiment and starts to have a bigger factor on business.”
“But right now, short term, we still feel better about all the other, positive economic factors,” McNeil added.