Automakers see sales drop in September

A row of Jeeps are seen in Gaithersburg, Md., in this May 1, 2013 file photo.
A row of Jeeps are seen in Gaithersburg, Md., in this May 1, 2013 file photo. GARY CAMERON

Automakers enjoyed a 27-month run of improved year-over-year sales results, but it all came to an end in September. Some makers managed to buck the trend, but most posted small or modest drops compared with the year-ago period.

While disappointing, the drop is not as upsetting as one might think. September had a few quirks the biggest among them being that there was two fewer selling days this year than last year.

General Motors reported an 11 percent drop year-over-year. Retail sales were down 6 percent versus a year ago and fleet sales were down 27 percent. But adjusting for the quirky September calendar, GM officials put a more positive spin on the numbers, suggesting demand would have been up 2 percent.

Additionally, deliveries for the first two days of September, including the Labor Day holiday, didn’t contribute toward automakers’ tallies because they were counted in August figures.

Analysts project September deliveries will slip 3.8 percent to 1.14 million units, according to the average of 10 estimates gathered by Bloomberg. The annualized sales rate, adjusted for seasonal factors, is projected to rise to 15.4 million – based on the average of 16 estimates compiled by Bloomberg – from 14.8 million in September 2012.

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Chrysler estimated the September SAAR (Seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales) will come in at 15.7 million units, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks, while GM officials pegged it at 15.3 million. Even with a lower SAAR in September, analysts believe automakers remain on pace to post the industry's largest annual sales total since 2007.

Ford and Chrysler stayed ahead of the downward trend with increases of 6 percent and 1 percent respectively. The two makers were able to ride the continuing surge in demand for pickup truck sales buoyed by a modest revival in the U.S. housing market.

Ford, in fact, had its best September since 2006 in the U.S., outpacing the industry and marking the maker’s 11th consecutive month of year-over-year sales increases.

“The combination of great styling, fuel economy and value delivered another solid monthly result for Ford in September,” said Ken Czubay, vice president, U.S. Marketing, Sales and Service, adding that the full-size “F-Series keeps delivering, with our fifth-straight month surpassing the 60,000-vehicle mark and continuing as America’s best-selling vehicle.”

Chrysler Group’s increase marked the smallest of the Detroit maker’s best September since 2007, but it did extend its streak of year-over-year sales gains to 42-consecutive months.

“Even though industry sales dipped during September, Chrysler Group still managed to eke out a slight sales increase for the month,” said Reid Bigland, Head of U.S. Sales.

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The weak performance for September may not be as worrying as the numbers initially suggest, however. J.D. Power and Associates noted that there were several flukes to the industry calendar, resulting in fewer so-called “selling days,” while the bonuses of big Labor Day sales extravaganzas largely wound up being counted in the strong month of August’s numbers.

“Our dealers had two less selling days in September compared with a year ago, but they still outperformed the industry and extended our sales streak to 42-consecutive months of year-over-year sales gains,” suggested Chrysler’s Bigland, noting that Chrysler had four models that set sales records in September, the Jeep Compass and Patriot, and the Dodge Dart and Challenger.

Nissan Division sales finished at 77,828 units, a decrease of 5.6 percent. Sales of Infiniti vehicles totaled 9,040 units, down 4.3 percent.Toyota fell 4 percent posting sales of 164,457 last month, the company said.

"September was a solid month for the auto industry despite two fewer selling days," Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota division, said in a statement. "Industry fundamentals are strong as interest rates stay low and consumers remain confident."

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Honda division sales fell 9 percent while Acura dropped 19 percent. It was a mixed bag for Honda with Civic and CR-V sales up, but Accord and Odyssey down.

"Even as we catch our breath from all-time record August sales and with two fewer selling days this month, the Honda brand continues on a strong pace for the year," John Mendel, executive vice president of sales at American Honda, said in a statement.

Among other automakers, U.S. sales last month rose 15 percent at Subaru, 1 percent at Jaguar Land Rover, 6 percent at Audi and 13 percent at Porsche. Mitsubishi Motors North America reported September sales slid 17 percent.

Despite steady demand for its diesel models, Volkswagen of America saw its sale slip by 2.6 percent during September.

“While September was an expectedly tough month for the industry, Volkswagen is seeing some stability as we are consistently pacing at a solid level of performance for the second year in a row, a level we haven’t seen in 40 years,” said Mark McNabb, chief operating officer, Volkswagen of America. “As we enter the last quarter of the year, I’m confident we can maintain this pace as our product mix improves and we increase the availability of our 2014 model year vehicles.”

The estimated average transaction price for light vehicles sold in the United States was $31,604 in September 2013, up a modest $32 from the previous month and down $37 year-over-year, according to Kelley Blue Book, a provider of new and used car information.

(Paul A. Eisenstein and Joe Szczesny contributed to this report)