Auto sales top 17 million for third consecutive year, fall from 2016 record

Auto sales top 17 million for third consecutive year, fall from 2016 record

Sharp declines for cars lowered overall sales, but profits will likely be higher for the year as trucks, crossover, and SUVs sold well.

January 4, 2018

Chevrolet Equinox sales grew 20% in 2017 as buyers turned to crossover and SUVs instead of cars.

Cleveland, Ohio – With full-year results coming in at about 17.1 million, the auto sales winning streak that started in 2010 is over. But few are crying given the third 17+ million sales finish and the fact that the vehicles that are selling are high-profit trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

General Motors provides a decent microcosm of the overall market – truck sales (pickups, commercial trucks, commercial vans) ended the year up 2.3%, SUVs surged 9.6%, but cars plunged 16.2%. Numbers varied a bit from automaker to automaker, but the general trend was big numbers for big vehicles and miserable results for cars.

Breaking down the December and full-year results by company:

  • General Motors – December: 308,539; -3.3%. Full-year: 3.0 million; -1.3%. Beyond trucks good/cars bad, there are some interesting tidbits in GM’s numbers. Those miserable car sales included nearly 44,000 electric vehicles (EVs) – about 24,000 all-electric Bolt EVs, and about 20,000 Volt plug-in hybrids. That’s about 25% of what Tesla is expected to report when it unveils full-year production and shipment numbers later this week. More importantly, GM appears to be balancing production with demand. It had an 83-day supply of cars and trucks at the end of 2016 but only a 63-day supply at the end of last year. Final note, average transaction prices topped a record $35,400, nearly $4,000 higher than the industry average.
  • Ford – December: 242,049 0.9%. Full-year: 2.6 million; -1.1%. Ford was the only major automaker to post a December gain. December 2016 was a monster month, producing records for Ford and several of its competitors, but only the blue oval was able to repeat that performance. On the down side, the gains came primarily from big sales increases to rental-car fleets. Full year, Ford’s fleet numbers were flat compared to 2016, but many of those deliveries came at the end of the year, swelling December’s results. Ford’s truck numbers were a bit better than GM’s, growing 4.3% for the year, but its 2.9% growth in SUVs was significantly lower – partly because the Escape and Explorer had great 2016s.
  • Toyota – December: 222,985; -8.3%. Full-year: 2.4 million; -0.6%. Toyota continues to shift more of its sales from cars to trucks and SUVs, but it’s not doing so quickly enough to avoid some big declines. On the car side, the good news is that the redesigned Camry posted big gains, overcoming losses early in the year and keeping the vehicle flat for 2017 (down 0.4%). On the down side, Toyota’s other car mainstay, the Corolla compact, fell 13%. On the SUV side, big gains for the RAV4 and Highlander pushed that segment up 18% for the full year.
  • FCA US LLC – December: 171,946; -10.7%. Full-year: 2.1 million; -8.2%. While posting the biggest decline among the major automakers doesn’t look great, Fiat Chrysler is accomplishing its main goal – shrink the company by dropping its least-profitable vehicles. At Jeep, the bulk of the 11% full-year decline comes from the cancellation of the Patriot small SUV; at Chrysler, the loss of the 200 sedan makes up the bulk of the 19% decline; and at Dodge, the loss of the Dart compact explains most of the 12% decline, although lackluster results for the aging Journey crossover didn’t help. Ram pickup and commercial van sales, the only division not losing a major vehicle, gained 2% for the year. The final bright spot is Alfa Romeo where sales surged to 12,031 units in 2017 from 516 in 2016.
  • Honda – December: 149,317; -7.0%. Full-year: 1.6 million; 0.2%. It was only 3,482 vehicles, but a gain’s a gain, and Honda was one of only two major automakers to finish 2017 in positive territory. Unsurprisingly, the gains came from the SUV side where the CR-V and HR-V crossovers and the Pilot SUV posted gains. The redesigned Ridgeline pickup had 34,749 units sold in 2017, a rounding error for Ford or GM, but good for a 47% increase for Honda.
  • Nissan – December: 138,226; -9.5%. Full-year: 1.6 million; 1.9%. In 2016, slightly more than one-in-five Nissans sold were Rogue small crossovers. In 2017, that number topped one-in-four, making Nissan the fastest-growing major automaker for the year. The 22% full-year increase for the already popular vehicle was responsible for the bulk of Nissan’s gains, although the Armada large SUV and Titan pickup also had great years. Car sales fell about 10% for the year, switching the company’s overall makeup. In 2016, Nissan’s sales were 52% car, 48% truck. Last year, it was 54% truck, 46% car.
  • Hyundai/Kia – December: 106,633; -8.6%. Full-year: 1.3 million; -10.4%. The Hyundai brand produced a 2% sales gain in December, a figure decimated by Kia’s 21% decline. For the full year, Kia (down 9%) outperformed Hyundai (down 11.5%), though both brands struggled. Both brands are car heavy, featuring models such as the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. Of those cars, most declined sharply for the year with only the compact Kia Forte producing a sizeable gain (up 14%). Hyundai’s Tucson small SUV and Kia’s new Niro small crossover provided some positive numbers, but they weren’t enough to overcome the big losses for cars.

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; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi..