DETROIT — U.S. light-vehicle sales dropped 6.9 percent in July, the weakest showing yet in a year that is on track to generate the industry's first decline in volume since the 2008-09 market collapse.
The seasonally adjusted, annualized sales rate (SAAR) fell to 16.8 million last month, down sharply from 17.8 million in July 2016. The SAAR has now fallen below 17 million three consecutive months, based on revised factors released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on Tuesday.
July marked the seventh consecutive monthly decline in industry volume, even as auto makers pile on bigger deals and the general U.S. economy continues to grow and unemployment remains low.
Car sales fell 15 percent and light truck volume dropped 1.9 percent, the second monthly decline for popular pickups, crossovers and SUVs this year.
Volume is now down 2.9 percent through July, mostly on lower car and fleet deliveries.
Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, Nissan North America Inc., American Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor America all saw demand drop last month behind sharply lower fleet and car sales. Retail deliveries were also spotty for some auto makers.
Among major auto makers, there was one exception to the broad decline: Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., which tallied a 3-percent gain. Subaru of America Inc. continued to defy gravity in posting a 6.9-percent gain.
This July had one less selling day than July of 2016.
Ford's 7.4-percent setback marked its biggest drop of 2017. The same went for GM, down 15 percent, as it held to a strategy of reducing sales to rental fleets. Fiat Chrysler fell 9.5 percent. Nissan backstepped for the second time this year, down 3 percent.
At American Honda, volume dropped 1.2 percent.
GM said it slashed July sales to rental car customers in the U.S. by 80 percent compared with a year ago, to just over 2,700 vehicles, while increasing shipments to commercial fleets.
U.S. commercial vehicle fleet deliveries rose by 40 percent in July to 17,300 vehicles, GM said, noting commercial sales can be as profitable as retail volume.
Fleet deliveries accounted for about 11 percent of total July volume, GM said.
"We have strategically decided to reduce car production rather than increase incentive spending or dump vehicles into daily rental fleets, like some of our competitors," Kurt McNeil, GM's head of U.S. sales operations, said in a statement.
"We are working hard to protect the residual values of our new products and growing quality retail and commercial sales, and July's ATPs reflect that discipline."
Toyota's monthly gain — only its second of the year — reflected increases of 4.3 percent at the Toyota brand and 3.6 percent at Lexus.
At Nissan North America, volume dropped 4.1 percent at the Nissan brand and Infiniti volume rose 9 percent. July is only the second month this year that Nissan's U.S. deliveries have declined as the company continues to gain share in a down market.
FCA US' July sales fell behind a 6 percent decline in retail volume and 35 percent reduction in fleet business. Ram and Alfa Romeo were the only two FCA brands to post higher sales last month, with volume off 12 percent at Jeep, 30 percent at the Chrysler brand and 12 percent at Dodge.
Volume dropped 1.7 percent at the Honda brand and rose 3.7 percent at Acura. Overall, American Honda truck sales slipped 4.2 percent and car deliveries edged up 1.9 percent.
Analysts said sales in the second half of the year will pivot on additional incentive spending and production.
"Through the first six months of the year, the SAAR has averaged just 16.9 million units, below the 17.2-million-unit pace of the first half of 2016," said Christopher Hopson, manager of North America light-vehicle forecasting for IHS Markit.
"We expect some rebound from the sales pace in the first half of the year, but overall light vehicle demand does seem to be stuck in neutral."
Mr. Hopson said IHS Markit has cut its forecast for industrywide U.S. sales in 2017 to 17.1 million from 17.3 million units.
J.D. Power said incentives averaged $3,876 per new vehicle in the first two weeks of July, a high for the month and an increase of 7.8 percent from the previous July record set in 2016.
ALG estimates new-vehicle incentives in the U.S. averaged $3,565 last month, or 4.7 percent higher than July 2016. GM, FCA, Ford and Nissan were the biggest spenders on discounts last month, ALG found.
David Phillips is a reporter for Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business