Major auto makers, with the exception of Fiat Chrysler, posted lower U.S. sales last month behind the ongoing slump in the car market and softer retail demand, even amid elevated incentive levels, signaling an anticipated second-half slowdown continued in September.
A year ago, industry sales also were boosted by vehicle-replacement demand following Hurricane Harvey.
With every auto maker except for Audi reporting, U.S. light-vehicle deliveries last month fell 5.6 percent, slightly better than analysts' forecast for a 7 percent decline compared to September 2017, when sales spiked as consumers replaced vehicles destroyed by Harvey.
Yet by another measure, the September numbers will look stronger. The seasonally adjusted, annualized rate of sales was expected to rise above 17 million for the seventh time this year after two months below that level. The forecast is based on nine analysts polled by Bloomberg News.
A final SAAR won't be calculated until Audi reports September results, which are expected later Tuesday or early Wednesday.
The September 2017 SAAR was 18.2 million, the strongest month of the year.
U.S. sales rose 1.3 percent through August after a better-than-expected first half, driven in part by a boost from U.S. tax reform. The SAAR declines in July and August were taken as a sign that a second-half slowdown predicted by analysts is unfolding.
"The U.S. economy and auto industry remain strong," said General Motors Chief Economist Elaine Buckberg. "A new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement will reduce uncertainty for the auto industry and all three countries. We believe 2018 will be the fourth year in a row with total industry sales above 17 million units."
Company by company
FCA U.S. sales rose 15 percent last month to 199,819—enough to outsell Ford Motor Co. for the first time since 2015—behind stronger results at the Jeep and Ram brands. FCA said deliveries jumped 14 percent at Jeep, 9 percent at Ram and 41 percent at Dodge. Volume dropped 7 percent at the Chrysler brand and slumped 46 percent at Fiat.
FCA's retail sales totaled 149,713 units, and fleet accounted for 25 percent of total volume last month.
General Motors' sales dropped an estimated 16 percent last month, with deliveries down 18 percent at Chevrolet, 8.6 percent at GMC, 11 percent at Buick and 17 percent at Cadillac.
GM no longer releases monthly sales results but the company said its third-quarter U.S. deliveries fell 11 percent to 694,638 cars and light trucks, with every brand off during the period. For the year, GM said its U.S. sales have dropped 1.2 percent behind declines at every brand.
Ford Motor's U.S. sales fell 11 percent behind the ongoing industrywide slump in car demand and lower light-truck volumes. Deliveries fell 11 percent at the Ford division and 7.2 percent at Lincoln, the company said.
Ford's pickup/van demand slipped 9.9 percent and SUV/crossover sales dropped 2.7 percent, while September car deliveries skidded 26 percent. Ford Motor's U.S. car sales have now dropped 17 percent this year as the company prepares to discontinue most sedans under the Ford brand in North America.
Retail volume declined 13 percent and fleet shipments dropped 6.7 percent last month, Ford said.
At Toyota Motor Corp., volume dropped 10 percent last month, with car sales plunging 25 percent and light-truck demand dipping 0.3 percent. Toyota division sales slipped 11 percent and Lexus was off 6.1 percent.
Nissan Motor Co.'s September sales fell 12 percent, with car deliveries plunging 36 percent and light-truck volume rising 6.6 percent. Sales fell 13 percent at the Nissan brand and 1.5 percent at Infiniti.
Honda Motor Co. reported sales of 132,668, a decline of 7 percent, reflecting a 20 percent drop in car deliveries. Volume slipped 8.2 percent at Honda but rose 4.4 percent at Acura.
Subaru extended its streak of year-over-year monthly gains to 82 with a 3.5 percent increase in September sales.
September deliveries declined 1.8 percent at Kia, 17 percent at Mazda, 8.6 percent at Mitsubishi, 7.4 percent at Mini and 59 percent at Smart but increased 3 percent at Hyundai.
The Volkswagen brand snapped an eight-month streak of gains, with volume off 4.8 percent in September. Even with strong crossover sales, the company said September results were negatively impacted by delays to certify emissions on some 2019 models, limiting inventories.
Among other luxury brands, volume rose 1.3 percent at BMW, 10 percent at Volvo, 0.9 percent at Porsche and 8.7 percent at Land Rover. Sales skidded 76 percent at Genesis and 38 percent at Jaguar.
While the U.S. economy and employment continue to grow, and consumer confidence remains high, rising interest rates and elevated gasoline prices are expected to dampen consumer demand. Increasing stockpiles of late-model used vehicles and climbing new-vehicle prices are also putting downward pressure on new car and light-truck sales.
"There's no question the Fed's actions this year are impacting car buyers," Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Cox Automotive, said after the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates for the third time in 2018. "It will not get better for consumers or the industry from here."
Smoke said the Fed's seven rate increases over the last 22 months have already shifted the market from one that peaked with new-vehicle demand two years ago—17.55 million in 2016—to one that is now generating peak used-vehicle sales.
"Clearly, the Fed isn't finished, as they have indicated an additional increase will come in December, with more expected in 2019," Smoke said.
The Trump administration's proposals to increase tariffs on light-vehicle imports could also derail sales if enacted.