Auto Sales Tap Brakes in July

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Published August 01, 2014

| FOXBusiness

Growing demand for sport-utility vehicles fueled the auto industry in July, although sales tapped the brakes after a torrid June.

Analysts were warning of a slowdown in U.S. auto sales last month. June marked the strongest sales pace since the 2008 recession, as the industry posted a seasonally adjusted annual rate of nearly 17 million vehicles.

July checked in with a SAAR of 16.5 million, slightly below estimates but up from 15.8 million a year earlier. Industry-wide deliveries were up 1% over June and 9% compared to July 2013.

Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez said industry trends appear stable as fuel prices eased last month and interest rates remained low. Leases are becoming more popular, accounting for roughly 25% of transactions compared to 23% in 2013. That reflects the highest share since at least 2000, according to Gutierrez.

“Consumers are willing to buy new cars, and they have finance options available to them,” he added.

Gutierrez also said strength in utilities is driving sales this year. Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at AutoTrader.com, said the website is seeing “tremendous activity” from people looking for SUVs.

General Motors (GM) continued to report solid sales gains despite a string of recalls this year. The nation’s top seller of cars and trucks booked a 9.4% increase in July sales, with GMC leading the way.

GM said Friday it sold 256,160 vehicles, pushing year-to-date sales above one million. Retail sales, or vehicles sold by dealers to consumers, climbed 4.2%.

Both Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com expected GM’s sales to rise about 10.7%. GM shares dropped 29 cents to $33.53 in recent trading.

Demand for GM’s large SUVs buoyed Chevrolet and GMC. Combined sales of the redesigned Chevrolet Tahoe, Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon were up 25% over the year-ago month.

Chevrolet booked sales growth of 7.7%, and GMC soared 22.2%. Buick sales were also strong, rising 7.9%. Cadillac sales dropped 2.6%, even as deliveries of the Escalade large SUV—also new for model-year 2015—nearly doubled.

Sales of all GM crossovers increased 26%. Chevrolet saw sales of the Traverse bolt 25% higher, and the Equinox surged 37%. The GMC Terrain also climbed 37%.

“Sales of utility vehicles soared in July because American families feel better about the economy than they have in a long time, and they are finding an incredible variety of redesigned and all-new models in our showrooms,” Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. vice president of sales operations, said in a statement. “Small, compact, medium, large – sales were strong across the board.”

Detroit-based GM has been under a microscope since it recalled 2.6 million vehicles worldwide to replace defective ignition switches and cylinders.

Congress and the Department of Justice have been investigating the issue, given revelations GM engineers were aware of the faulty parts about ten years ago. GM said the defect can be traced to 13 deaths.

The auto maker subsequently initiated a safety review and recalled millions of additional cars. Last month, GM reported a sharp decline in second-quarter earnings after taking a $1.2 billion charge for repair costs. The company also reported a $400 million write-down to cover compensation for accident victims.

The negative headlines haven’t fazed car shoppers. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little surprised,” Gutierrez said.

Consumers appear to be focused on an improved GM portfolio, Gutierrez added. GM has launched several revamped vehicles, like the Chevrolet Impala, in recent years.

Ford Motor Co. (F) delivered 212,236 vehicles during the month of July, up 9.6% thanks to strong gains for SUVs and the Lincoln brand.

Retail sales, or vehicles sold by dealers to consumers, rose 7%.

Ford topped Kelley Blue Book’s forecast for 8.8% growth in total sales. Edmunds was looking for an increase of 10.2%.

The Ford brand saw sales rise 9.4%, while Lincoln was up 13.6% on demand for the new MKC crossover. Overall, utilities logged sales growth of 17.1%. Trucks rose 6.6%, while car sales increased 6.4%.

Sales of the Fusion and Mustang were up 16.7% and 13.8%, respectively. The Explorer and Escape SUVs also had a strong month.

F-series pickup trucks hit sales of 63,240, a 4.6% increase year-over-year. Ford is retooling two truck plants to prepare for the new F-150, which will feature an aluminum body. The Dearborn, Mich.-based company has said it will avoid raising incentives on current F-150 models in order to maintain sufficient supplies leading up to the launch.

John Felice, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said overall incentive spending has moved in close tandem with increases in average transaction prices.

Ford executives also suggested the industry will continue to see steady growth the rest of the year. Emily Kolinski Morris, a senior U.S. economist at Ford, said aging vehicles remain a “fundamental force providing support for the industry.” Ford estimates that around 50% of all vehicles on the road are over 10 years old, above the 40% recorded around 2005.

Felice added that Ford expects to see “small and steady growth” in the auto industry. “The indicators suggest that,” he said during a conference call.

GM’s McNeil echoed that sentiment, saying improved consumer confidence and moderate energy prices points to “strong sales through the balance of the year.”

Ford shares ticked 19 cents lower to $16.83. The stock has risen about 10% year-to-date.

Chrysler Group posted sales growth of 20% in July amid continued demand for Jeeps, although the company fell just shy of expectations.

The third-largest U.S. car maker sold 167,667 vehicles, Chrysler’s best July performance since 2005. July also marked the 52nd consecutive month of year-over-year sales gains.

A 27% increase in truck sales offset a 1% decline for cars. Trucks accounted for nearly 80% of Chrysler’s total sales last month.

The Jeep brand had its best July ever. Jeep sales were up 41%, as the addition of the Cherokee lifted results yet again. Wrangler sales climbed 14%. Ram saw an 18% jump in sales, mostly due to the brand’s pickup trucks.

Chrysler’s namesake lineup recorded sales growth of 17%, even though demand for the new Chrysler 200 mid-size sedan was roughly flat with year-ago sales of the Sebring. Fiat sales increased 1%.

Dodge ticked 3% higher. Sales of the compact Dart soared 23%. The Charger and Challenger rose 7% and 1%, respectively. The company is offering a promotion that allows Charger and Challenger buyers to lease a 2014 model for one year and exchange it for a three-year lease on a redesigned 2015 model.

Also on Friday, Fiat shareholders approved the company’s merger with Chrysler, which will become a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The Italian automaker intends to invest heavily in brands like Jeep, Chrysler, Alpha Romeo and Maserati to fuel sales worldwide, according to a presentation given by executives in May.

Fiat, which agreed to a $4.32 billion deal in January to acquire full ownership of Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler, plans to list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in addition to the exchange in Milan. Chief executive Sergio Marchionne has said FCA’s New York trading debut is expected to happen by Oct. 1.

Toyota’s (TM) July sales were up 11.6% year-over-year at 215,802 vehicles. Bill Fay, head of the Toyota division, noted that both the Camry and Corolla recorded double-digit growth. Lexus sales jumped 18.7%.

Honda (HMC) said its monthly sales fell 3.9% on weakness at its Acura luxury division. The company sold 135,908 vehicles.

German manufacturer Volkswagen Group, which includes Audi and Porsche, continued to report lower sales of its namesake vehicles. Combined, Volkswagen and Audi logged 45,169 deliveries, down 7.5%. Audi sales were again a strong suit, climbing 11.9%.

Hyundai and Kia combined to sell 3.7% more vehicles. Deliveries totaled 119,320. Hyundai sales were up 1.5%, while Kia’s sales grew 6.7%.

Nissan Group set a July record with sales of 121,452 units, marking an 11.4% improvement. The results still fell short of projections.

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