February auto sales dip 4%

February auto sales dip 4%

SUVs fail to make up for declining car numbers in a statistically insignificant month.

March 2, 2018
By Robert Schoenberger

Toyota was the only major automaker to post a sales gain in February, thanks mainly to positive numbers from its Camry sedan (pictured).

Cleveland, Ohio – Auto sales fell in February, second only to January in its utter insignificance to annual sales totals. The shortest month of the year also comes in that lull between year-end blowout sales and new vehicle launches, so early year results rarely indicate anything.

Still, for those looking for reasons to be alarmed or comforted, there were some key points to tease out from the numbers. Car sales continued their miserable trend, and unlike all of 2017 and January of this year, booming SUV and crossover sales weren’t good enough to make up for it.

Sales for the top seven automakers (representing about 85% of the U.S. market) fell slightly more than 4%, the largest decline in months. However, sales numbers are so small in February that even minor changes can have big impacts on the percentage changes. Rounded to the closest decimal point, 2018 and 2017 had the same 1.1 million sales figure, so that entire 4% shift takes place within the rounding margin.

Results by company are:

  • General Motors – 220,905; -6.9%. On the plus side, GM was able to arrest the rapid decline in car sales in its luxury Buick and Cadillac lineups, getting gains from both brands including a 47.6% jump in Buick LaCrosse sales and a 44.5% gain in Cadillac XTS sales. However, mainstream car sales (Chevy Cruze, Malibu, Impala, Sonic, and Spark) all fell, and Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups declined. Those declines came despite higher sales to rental fleets. GM officials say the company is balancing production with demand, so even though sales were down, inventories were down more, decreasing the need for big discounts in the near future.
  • Ford – 194,132; -6.9%. Ford lives and dies on the performance of its pickups, and the F-Series posted its best February in 18 years (up 3.5%). Alright, that’s the statistical equivalent of a baseball team bragging about being undefeated a week into the season, but it was a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy report. More than one-third of Ford sales were to fleets in February (36.6%), and SUV sales were down 11.8%. The bright spot in SUVs were the Expedition and EcoSport – the Expedition declined 26.2%, but that was because it’s been redesigned and in short supply (13 days on most lots). The new made-in-India EcoSport is giving Ford an entry-level SUV, and sales are growing quickly as more vehicles arrive.
  • Toyota – 182,195; 4.5%. The only major automaker to post a February gain. Toyota minimized declines in the car side (down 3.1%) thanks to a double-digit boost form the redesigned Camry sedan (up 12.2%). Further gains came from the C-HR crossover (not on sale a year ago) and the RAV4 SUV (13.3%). On the truck side, the Tacoma light pickup gained 18%.
  • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles LLC (FCA US) – 165,903; -1.4%. Thanks to strong Jeep numbers (up 12%), FCA had a minimal loss. Jeep Compass sales skyrocketed more the 5x, and the redesigned Wrangler jumped 17%. But the market only had room for one company to post strong pickup sales (Ford), so Ram numbers were down 14%. At Chrysler, sales fell only 3% as more-favorable comparable numbers caught up to the company’s strategy. FCA decided to discontinue the Town & Country minivan more than a year ago, so it’s year-over-year numbers no longer go up against that vehicle’s popularity. And Pacifica minivans were up 27%.
  • Nissan – 129,930; -4.3%. Rogue small crossover numbers were only great (up 15%) not fantastic as they’ve been in recent months, so Nissan wasn’t able to offset a 17% decline for car sales with its fast-growing SUV and crossover lineup. A bright spot was pickups with Frontier light trucks up 69% and Titan big trucks up 26% (though at 3,761 Titans sold, Nissan won’t be challenging Ford’s 68,243-truck February any time soon).
  • Honda – 115,557; -5.0%. Honda continues to produce the most stable numbers in the industry – cars down 5.5%, trucks down 4.6%, but both sides of its business are struggling. Part of the problem is the reverse effect of FCA. Honda’s numbers were great last year, so it’s up against much tougher comparables this year. For example, 25,852 CR-V sales would have been a decent result and the company not sold a record 31,898 a year ago.
  • Hyundai/Kia – 86,767; -9.3%. The bulk of the decline came from the Hyundai side (down 13.1%) with the Sonata sedan the biggest culprit (down 54%). Had the Sonata matched its February, 2017, numbers, company sales would have been flat. Kia Optima sales were also down sharply (down 28%), but its SUVs, compact cars, and the new Stinger sports sedan kept it from producing Hyundai-like declines.

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 18 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.