By David Phillips, Crain News Service
DETROIT (March 7, 2014) — U.S. auto sales were flat in February as rising showroom traffic in recent weeks fueled hope that the industry finally would break out of its three-month, weather-crimped slump in March.
Total sales fell by just 357 units, or 0.03, percent. Four of the five biggest auto makers posted declines, while Chrysler Group L.L.C. and Nissan Motor Co. bucked the trend with double-digit increases. All-wheel-drive specialist Subaru plowed to a 24 percent gain.
General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai-Kia all cited severe winter weather for a drop in deliveries. And most said traffic improved in the second half of the month as storms and frigid temperatures eased.
The results trailed analysts' forecasts for a slight increase in February sales. The seasonally adjusted annualized sales (SAR) rate for the month—15.4 million—matched forecasts, rising from 15.3 million a year earlier and 15.2 million in January.
“Heading into February, our expectations were very low; we were expecting another down month, similar to what we saw in January,” said Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “Given some of the challenges that we saw with the month, I would classify this as a good month for the industry and sets us up for a very strong March.”
Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager, said the late February warm-up left the industry poised for “a strong March.”
Kurt McNeil, U.S. vice president of GM's sales operations, said in a statement: “Weather continued to impact the industry in February, but GM sales started to thaw during the Winter Olympic Games as our brand and marketing messages took hold.”
Mr. Fay said Toyota was hampered last month by disruptions in production and rail service, notably at the company's Canadian assembly operations.
In the first 60 days of the year, Toyota sales are tracking higher in the West, Mountain and South while volumes are off where weather has put a dent in consumer spending, Mr. Fay said.
“It will all balance itself out over the next couple months,” he said. “We're looking forward to getting this winter behind us. It certainly has delayed some purchases, which should result in a strong spring selling season.”
Chrysler's sales rose 11 percent, extending the company's streak of year-over-year gains to 47 consecutive months. Deliveries rose 47 percent to 45,946 units at Jeep, a February record for the brand, and 28 percent at the Ram brand.
Overall, Chrysler Group's light truck sales rose 27 percent, offsetting a 15 percent decline in car deliveries. Volume rose 1 percent at the Chrysler brand and 5 percent at Fiat, but slumped 11 percent at Dodge.
GM's U.S. dealers delivered 222,104 vehicles last month, a drop of 1 percent, with retail and fleet volumes both down 1 percent.
Buick was the only GM brand to post a gain—19 percent. Volumes fell 3 percent at Chevrolet and Cadillac, and 1 percent at GMC. Sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup dropped 12 percent.
This report appeared in Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.