Kia's Sportage SUV represents two trends -- the continuing shift from cars to trucks in auto sales and an exceptionally flat January compared to a year ago. Kia sold exactly two more vehicles this January than it did in 2017.
Cleveland, Ohio – First, a few caveats. January is typically the worst month of the year for auto sales, so increases and decrease at the beginning of the year tend to mean nothing. Those small numbers can create big swings in year-over-year comparisons, so it’s not unusual to hear phrases like “best January ever” for a minimal gain in sales.
That said, January was even less significant than usual in 2018 with sales for the top seven automakers (representing about 85% of the U.S. market) posting nearly identical results to 2017. Technically, you could call it a sales decline, but you’d have to carry the zeros out a bit to spot it – 964,500 sales in January, down 0.012% from 964,619 vehicles in January 2017.
Within those pancake-flat results were the continuation of 2017’s trends – lousy car numbers offset by much better truck, crossover, and SUV results. Results by company are:
- General Motors – 195,548; 1.3%. GM sent more cars than usual to rental fleets in January, and the small numbers from the first month of the year amplify the impact of those non-retail transactions. At Buick, for example, LaCrosse sedan sales more than doubled despite the car’s constant decline in popularity last year. Chevrolet’s Silverado pickup posted a 14.5% gain, though some of that came at the expense of its corporate twin GMC Sierra (down 18.3%). Overall, truck sales were up for the company, likely driven by sales to clear out 2017 and 2018 models in anticipation of the launch of 2019 trucks.
- Toyota – 167,056; 16.8%. Toyota overtook Ford for the No. 2 spot, but (stop me if I’m repeating myself) such wins are virtually meaningless in the first quarter of the year. Thanks to a 21.3% gain for the Camry sedan, Toyota car sales were up as that redesigned model overcame weakness from the Corolla compact (down 0.7%) and the Prius hybrid (down 11.3%). Still, the Camry which used to define Toyota and single-handedly determine if it was succeeding or failing, was outsold by the Rav4 SUV (24,638 Camries, 26,655 Rav4s).
- Ford – 161,143; -6.6%. The reverse story to GM, Ford cut fleet sales in January. Retail sales were down 4.3% with fleet down 12.0%. On the other hand, spending on cash-back incentives fell, pushing average transaction prices higher. Sales were down for nearly everything the company makes with sharp losses for the Focus compact (-31%), Fusion sedan (-33%), and Flex large crossover (-19.8%). On the other hand, F-Series truck sales posted their best January ever, increasing 1.6% to 58,937 vehicles. And at Ford, as long as the F-150 is healthy, the rest of the company can take care of itself.
- Fiat Chrysler Automobiles LLC (FCA US) – 132,803; -12.8%. Continuing 2017’s trends, Fiat Chrysler’s sales continue to fall as the company streamlines its offerings. The Chrysler brand is effectively down to two vehicles – the Pacifica Minivan and the 300 sedan. Dodge has lost the Dart compact and Avenger sedan and has sharply cut production of the Journey crossover. Jeep sales were a bright spot, up 2%, as that brand has the new Compass small SUV.
- Nissan – 123,537; 10.0%. Nissan passed Honda for the No. 5 spot, something it did in January 2017 but didn’t maintain as the year progressed. Like Toyota, it got some help from cars as its three best sellers – Sentra compact, Altima mid-sized, and Maxima sporty sedan – all posted solid gains. Nissan doesn’t share fleet vs. retail sales data, but some fleet involvement was likely. On the truck side, the Rogue crossover continues to dominate the company, growing 25.8% to 36,184 units – nearly the combined sales of the Sentra and Altima.
- Honda – 104,542; -1.7%. Big increases for Acura car sales (TLX up 13.2%, RLX up 67.5%) helped offset poor results for the Accord (down 9.5%) and Fit (down 4.6%). Accord inventories are low as that car went through a redesign last year, so numbers should improve as factories in Ohio get back to full speed. With trucks, the Ridgeline pickup was down 21.4% and the CR-V crossover fell 16.9%, offsetting much better results for the HR-V small crossover (up 10%) and Pilot SUV (up 61.8%).
- Hyundai/Kia – 76,870; -6.4%. More on Hyundai in a minute, Kia was the poster child for January. In a month defined by its flatness, Kia sold 35,628 vehicles – two more than it did a year ago. In percentage terms, that’s a 0.0056% increase. Within those results, there was some shifting from cars to trucks with the new Niro crossover and Sportage SUV picking up losses for the Optima sedan and Sedona minivan. At Hyundai, sales fell more than 11% as the company was up against a record month in 2017 and because it slashed rental-fleet sales.
About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 17 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.