US Auto Sales Wrap Up Terrible First Quarter with Dismal March Numbers

Auto sales in the U.S. wrapped up an ugly first quarter with dismal results for the month of March as the buying frenzy from last year’s tax cuts wore off and the economy continues to decelerate. Of the sales data that was reported for the month, Honda was the only major automaker that didn't see a year-over-year sales decline. Here's how some of the bigger name manufacturers ended the month:

  • General Motors saw deliveries drop 7% for the quarter, with all four brands falling
    • Chevy Silverado was down 16%
    • Chevy Suburban dropped 25%
  • Fiat Chrysler sales fell 7.3% (estimates were for a decline of 6.4%)
    • Jeep sales fell 11%, continuing the February trend of SUV demand drying up
  • Toyota sales fell 3.5%
    • This beat estimates for the month, but still showed softness
    • Toyota also fell 5% for the first quarter, hurt by a decline in demand for its Corolla
    • Nissan sales were down 5.3% in March
      • Nissan's first quarter sales were down 11.6%
      • Deliveries fell 23% for its Infiniti brand
    • Ford sales were down 5% in March, according to industry data
      • The company is expected to show a 2% decline for the quarter
    • Honda saw a 4.3% percent increase, as passenger car sales rose more than 4%.
      • Accord sales were up 5%

    "The industry had a tough first quarter but with spring finally starting to show its face and continued strong economic indicators, such as a boost in housing sales, lower lending rates and a strong labor market, we are confident that new vehicle sales demand will strengthen going forward," Fiat Chrysler's U.S. head of sales, Reid Bigland, said, and maybe if he keeps repeating that, it will eventually come true...

    "While some of our competitors are abandoning sedans, we remain optimistic about the future of the segment," Toyota said in a statement. As above, good luck with that, Toyota.

    “The segment is fairly stable for sedans, though they’re still not where they were a few years ago,” Billy Hays, the head of Nissan brand sales in the U.S., told Bloomberg.

    Both Ford and GM no longer announce monthly sales data  - for obvious reasons - but Ford is slated to release its first quarter numbers this Thursday. Estimates have pinned the automaker to a 2% decline for the quarter. The whisper number is lower.

    Aside from Dodge's Ram, the U.S. full size pickup segment continues to sputter. 

    The seasonally adjusted, annualized rate of sales is forecast to come in at 16.8 million, based on a survey of 12 analysts. While that would be up from February's 16.61 million rate, it is still well below the 17.33 million pace set in March 2018.

    Most notably most analysts forecast that industry sales this year will slip below 17 million for the first time in nearly five years, as higher rates, lower rebates, a deteriorating economy and rising prices continue to suffocate consumer demand.

    Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds said: “Things just keep getting tougher for new-car shoppers. Interest rates have crept up every month so far this year, and new vehicle prices continue to hover near record highs. We’re on the cusp of what could be a pretty dramatic shift in the market, simply because a big chunk of buyers are getting priced out.

    Jack Hollis, the Toyota brand sales chief in the U.S., was even more bold: “We’re very close to a bottom,” he said. We'll be sure to check back in with how this prognostication pans out in coming months. 

    We warned about slowing Jeep sales being a potential "canary in the coalmine" for the already struggling industry back in early March:

    The fact that Jeep sales have slowed is a warning indicator that the SUV "boom" in the U.S. could be coming to an end. Mired by higher interest rates and continued tightening of credit, buyers are forcing once record high SUV sales and prices back down again. As a result, Fiat's Jeep Wrangler sales fell 5.9% in the month, as inventory continued to pile up at dealerships. Fiat joined companies like Toyota, Honda and Nissan, as virtually every OEM both missed analyst estimates for the month and posted an annual sales decline.

    In January, auto companies set the tone for the year, starting 2019 just as miserably as 2018 ended, with major double digit plunges in sales from manufacturers like Nissan and Daimler.