Behind a big hit in March, U.S. light-vehicle sales fell at General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., FCA US, Nissan Motor Co. and BMW Group in the first quarter, underscoring the sudden, negative and sweeping impact the coronavirus has dealt auto makers and dealers as Americans hunker down at home.
In a closer snapshot of how the epidemic quickly is upending the industry, volume last month dropped 37 percent at Toyota—leaving it down 8.8 percent for the first quarter—48 percent at American Honda, and 43 percent at Hyundai, one of the hottest brands over the last 24 months.
Among other auto makers, March deliveries skidded 19 percent at Kia, 47 percent at Subaru, 42 percent at Mazda and 52 percent at Mitsubishi.
Sales dropped 7.1 percent at GM in the first three months, with the company citing "significant declines in March" across the industry because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
At Ford, volume dropped 13 percent and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported a 10 percent decline in first quarter sales as a virus-impacted March more than offset gains in January and February. At Nissan, volume skidded 30 percent in the first three months.
Among auto makers reporting results through early Thursday, only three brands—Ram, up 2.5 percent; Kia, up 1 percent; and Lincoln, up 2.3 percent—escaped the first quarter with gains.
"The entire world is facing a tremendous challenge that is having a significant impact on business and our normal way of life," Randy Parker, head of sales for Hyundai Motor America, said in a statement. "Tough days are ahead but we're doing all we can to position the company to survive this and return to the growth trajectory we've been on."
General Motors, the first auto maker to roll out 0 percent financing for 84 months when shutdown orders gained momentum in mid March, said first quarter volume fell 3.8 percent at Chevrolet, 5.5 percent at GMC, 35 percent at Buick and 16 percent at Cadillac. The company's inventory at the end of the first quarter stood at 668,443 units, down about 18 percent from a year ago.
While higher crossover and SUV demand, notably the Aviator, drove Lincoln to a first quarter gain, a 38 percent drop in car deliveries was behind the Ford division's 13 percent decline during the period. Overall, Ford said car deliveries dropped 36 percent during the quarter, while SUV volume dropped 11 percent and truck demand dropped 5.4 percent.
March sales at Toyota dropped behind a 35 percent decline at the Toyota division and 47 percent skid at Lexus, with every model across the two brands posting year-over-year monthly declines of 22 percent or more. Sales of the RAV4 compact crossover slid 25 percent last month and Camry deliveries dropped 31 percent.
At FCA US, Ram was the only brand with a first-quarter gain—2.5 percent. Volume fell 14 percent at Jeep, 20 percent at Dodge, 5 percent at Chrysler, 49 percent at Fiat and 14 percent at Alfa Romeo. Fleet shipments represented 31 percent of FCA's first-quarter volume.
The auto maker, on April 1, launched a new round of special incentives, including 0 percent financing for 84 months and no payments for 90 days on select 2019 and 2020 vehicles.
American Honda, another auto maker that outpaced the overall market in 2019 and in recent months, suffered a 48 percent decline at the Honda brand and 51 percent drop at Acura, with several core models down sharply. U.S. deliveries of the Honda CR-V slid 47 percent while Civic and Accord demand fell 46 percent each.
"After a strong start to the year, industry sales are going to suffer in the short term, and we have suspended auto production as part of our effort to carefully manage our business in the face of the steep decline in demand," Steven Center, head of automobile sales at American Honda, said in a statement.
First quarter U.S. sales slid 30 percent at the Nissan division and 26 percent at Infiniti, with combined car demand down 37 percent and light trucks off 24 percent, adding to the challenges at a company trying to overcome a mostly older product lineup and management turnover at the top.
First quarter sales at Volkswagen Group's VW brand slid 13 percent while Porsche, which generated record U.S. deliveries in 2019, said first quarter volume dropped 20 percent to 11,994, threatening to end the luxury brand's steady growth over the past decade. Audi deliveries dropped 14 percent in the first three months.
Cold winter ahead
What was shaping up to be a solid spring selling season, with industry sales rising 4 percent in the first two months, has become a cold winter for new car dealers and auto makers as the viral outbreak spreads across the U.S.
"Everyone is basically holding their breath for April," said Mark Wakefield, global co-head of the automotive and industrial practice at AlixPartners, adding the consulting and turnaround specialist has lowered its forecast for 2020 U.S. sales to 13.5 million units. "We do think the market comes back sharply but not where it was."
Some of the nation's most populous states fell under shelter-at-home orders in the closing weeks of March, and many showrooms went dark, as well, to help contain the virus. With U.S. government officials now recommending the country largely remain sheltered at home through April, the outlook has grown darker for new-vehicle sales.
On Wednesday, Florida, the nation's third-biggest car market with 1.326 million new light-vehicle registrations in 2019, became the latest state to order residents to stay at home, for a period of 30 days. Texas, the second-biggest market after California, and representing nearly one in ten new-vehicle sales in the U.S., adopted similar social distancing restrictions on Tuesday.
In major cities where stay-at-home orders were issued, new-vehicle sales typically dropped 80 percent within a few days last month, J.D. Power and Associates said.
"It's pretty stunning how quickly the market changed," said Tyson Jominy, vice president of data and analytics at J.D. Power. "In 2008, the industry had time to respond and take action. There has been no time to react since the middle of March."
Jominy said the overall market is estimated to drop by 493,000 units to 983,000 in March.
Tracking the SAAR
After hovering around 17 million for most of 2019 and the first two months of the year, the seasonally adjusted annualized rate of sales is expected to drop to 11.9 million, Edmunds estimates, the lowest level since June 2011's 11.67 million rate. J.D. Power, on April 1, estimated the March SAAR will tally 11.2 million.
LMC Automotive predicts the SAAR this month will fall to between 9 million and 10 million vehicles and JPMorgan Chase & Co. analysts are even more pessimistic, with an April SAAR forecast of between 6 million and 7 million.
March typically is the fourth-biggest month of the year for new vehicle sales. Most major auto makers reported first quarter and March results on April 1, but it will be weeks before the industry has a full scope of the initial, damaging impact from the epidemic.
Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar Land Rover are reporting their results later in April.
Surging unemployment, slumping consumer confidence and volatile equity markets will cast a cloud over the industry for several months, as households postpone a purchase or drop out of the new-vehicle market, analysts say.
In addition to lower retail volume, fleet sales are also expected to drop significantly as U.S. businesses preserve cash.
"The whole world is turned upside down right now, and the auto industry is unfortunately not immune to the wide-ranging economic impacts of this unprecedented pandemic," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with Edmunds.