Dec. 3, 2012 at 1:17 PM ET
ANALYSIS: It’s been nearly 40 years since Volkswagen did as well. For Porsche, it was its best month. Ever. Nissan and its luxury brand Infiniti posted records of their own.
After an unexpected setback just a month earlier, November appears to have delivered a new level of momentum for the U.S. auto industry – which now appears to be on track for an even bigger recovery in 2013.
Sales in November were on pace to top an annual rate of 15 million vehicles, which would mark the highest level since the 15.5 million rate of February 2008. Automakers on Monday reported new-car sales figures and the news was good across the board.
Ironically, the same force that cut sales in October appear to have provided the industry a much-needed tailwind a month later: Superstorm Sandy. The disaster forced as many as 100,000 potential buyers to postpone purchases until November, according to industry analysts.
"We were …very encouraged by the strong sales recovery experienced in those northeastern regions that were ravaged by Superstorm Sandy and expect continued momentum there for the balance of the year,” said Dave Zuchowski, executive vice president of sales for Hyundai Motor America.
The Korean maker posted record sales of 53,487 vehicles last month, an 8 percent increase compared with the same record-setting period a year ago. That was all the more significant considering the month began with news that Hyundai and sibling Kia had inflated mileage ratings on 13 models and would have to pare them back by as much as 6 miles per gallon.
Of course, it helped that Hyundai got out earlier with a promise to reimburse owners of affected vehicles. And the maker also ramped up its incentives by an average 29 percent, year-over-year, to $1,586 per vehicle, according to an estimate by data tracking service TrueCar.com.
In fact, makers generally upped their incentives during November, hoping to sustain momentum. The average increase was 4.4 percent compared to year-earlier givebacks, and 19.3 percent compared to October of this year.
Chrysler was one of the rare exceptions, trimming its November incentives by 22 percent from the year before – a move reflecting the fact that it continued gaining ground in the wake of its 2009 bankruptcy. The maker has now reported 32 consecutive monthly sales gains. Its Fiat brand, in particular, was up 123 percent as its expanding line-up finally begins catching hold after a painfully slow launch.
“We are expecting a strong December as the industry continues to recover from the East Coast hurricane and consumers continue to respond to our popular year-end Big Finish event,” said Reid Bigland, CEO of the Dodge brand and Chrysler’s corporate head of sales.
Going into the month it was far from certain November would turn out so well. The Superstorm had devastated large swaths of the East Coast and left scores of showrooms in the tri-state New York area shuttered. The presidential election raised any number of concerns about the mood of the electorate – and the health of the economy. Indeed, November brought with it growing concerns about the so-called “fiscal cliff” and the possibility that talk of another recession might lead consumers to rein in spending.
But if anything, “the Black Friday sales provided a boost,” according to Hyundai’s Zuchowski, with most manufacturers reporting little, if any, impact from the fiscal cliff crisis.
Not only were buyers back in the market along the storm-ravaged East Coast but, if anything, the destruction appeared to have triggered a flood of sales as buyers raced to replace the estimate 100,000 or more vehicles destroyed during the disaster, according to Bill Fay, Toyota Division group vice president and general manager.
The Toyota executive also pointed to “pent up demand, record low finance rates and exciting new products (for) also driving demand.”
Indeed, the market is seeing one of the biggest outpourings of new product in industry history. An estimate 50 new models are on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week, and at least that many more are expected to debut during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.
New product helped a long list of automakers claim records for November, and the buoyant mood suggested that the trend will likely continue in the months ahead.
“We expect showroom traffic to remain strong through the holiday gift-giving season,” forecast Ben Poore, the general manager for the Infiniti brand.
What remains to be seen is whether automakers will use November’s momentum – with sales coming in at an annualized rate estimated at between 14.7 million and 15.1 million – to pare back on incentives. The average giveback last month jumped to $2,764 per vehicle, according to TrueCar, compared to $2,317 in October and $2,647 in November 2011.
At the same time, transaction prices – the figure the typical motorist actually pays after adding in options and deducting givebacks – surged to their highest levels in a year, at an average $30,832.
“Industry average transaction prices climb once again with consumers' continued appetite for highly contended vehicles," said Jesse Toprak, Senior Analyst at TrueCar.
Despite the sense that consumers are growing increasingly confident about the economy, industry leaders still fear the market could take a serious hit if Washington lawmakers fail to reach a deal on taxes and spending. But most analysts are keeping their fingers crossed that a settlement will be reached in time to keep the overall economy rolling.
Reuters contributed to this report.