By Jesse Snyder, Crain News Service
DETROIT (April 7, 2015) — Auto makers mounted a furious late-month surge to push U.S. light-vehicle sales just past a strong March 2014 and post the third-best monthly selling rate since the recession.
But a true test of market strength? Not everybody was gunning for volume.
Only Toyota Motor Sales, FCA US and Hyundai-Kia went to the whip. Their incentives jumped and March sales rose, but average transaction prices fell.
By contrast, General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Nissan North America all substantially slashed incentives. Their March unit sales dropped between 2.4 and 3.5 percent. But transaction prices rose 4 percent for all three.
Analysts see the different approaches as evidence of a healthy market.
“In a stable market, brands are free to either buy some share or take profits,” said TrueCar President John Krafcik. “Those are tactical moves to make the most of their situation.”
Consider two opposite tacks.
Toyota's 4.9 percent sales increase followed a 16 percent spike in incentives, according to TrueCar data. But Toyota always offers deals in March, the closing month of its Japanese parent's fiscal year.
“These will be our best offers for the year,” Toyota Division General Manager Bill Fay said in early March.
Ford Motor's sales fell 3.5 percent as it cut incentives 17 percent from a year ago. But transaction prices jumped almost $1,200 a unit to $32,974.
Ford is so short of pickups during model changeover that it is deferring fleet orders to feed dealers. Its overall retail sales rose 1 percent but fleet plunged 13 percent, Ford sales boss Mark LaNeve said.
“The fleet decline was primarily based on order timing associated with the new F-150 and the manufacturing changeover,” he said.
Toyota wasn't the only auto maker increasing incentives for a purpose.
FCA US (Fiat/Chrysler) increased spiffs 10 percent to eke out a 1.7 percent March gain. That completed a fifth full year of monthly sales increases.
Hyundai-Kia used huge incentive increases to fuel 9.9 percent volume growth, good enough to outsell American Honda in March.
So how good were March's 1,545,710 light-vehicle sales? Pretty strong on two measures, despite being a scant 0.5 percent better than a year ago.
For starters, the 17.1 million seasonally adjusted annual selling rate (SAAR) was the third best monthly SAAR since July 2006. And last March benefited from having the first good weather of 2014, generous auto maker deals and a five-weekend calendar.
This March had one fewer selling day and one fewer weekend.
“For a four-weekend month, March was huge,” TrueCar's Mr. Krafcik said.
Annual U.S. auto sales have rebounded more than 6 million units since the recession: from 10.4 million in 2009 to 16.5 million in 2014. Most forecasters expect slower growth this year to about 16.9 to 17 million light vehicles.
SAARs of 16.7 million in January and 16.2 million in February threatened to dampen expectations, so March's 17.1 million selling pace lightens the mood.
Derrick Hatami, Nissan's sales vice president, said: “It's good that we can sustain volume while also reducing incentives.”
Reporter Gabe Nelson contributed to this report, which appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.