February auto sales in record territory, but…
Hyundai's new Palisade large SUV posted nearly 7,000 units in sales in February, a statistic that likely means absolutely nothing this year.
Courtesy of Hyundai

February auto sales in record territory, but…

Calendar quirks combine to create ideal sales conditions, so take the results with a massive grain of salt.

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Cleveland, Ohio – Several massive caveats first:

  • February is always a low-volume auto sales month given its short length, winter weather conditions, and early-in-the-year position on the calendar
  • Several major automakers including Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler (FCA) have stopped monthly reporting, so sales totals are incomplete at best
  • Leap year

Those warnings out of the way, February auto sales were record setters for many major automakers. Hyundai had its best February ever with sales up 16%. It’s corporate partner Kia? Up 20%.

A collection of sales headlines includes:

  • Mitsubishi – Up 13%, best February since 2004
  • Subaru – Up 5%, best February ever
  • Volvo cars – Up 18%, best February since 2007
  • Honda – Up 4%, best February ever
  • Mazda – Up 19%, no word on record status

Sorry, now I have to bring things back to reality. While I’ve recently argued that 2020 should be a good year for auto sales (depending on how that coronavirus thing works out), sales in the first quarter are awful indicators of automotive market strength.

The lightest three months of the year, all January, February, and March seem to do is spark unwarranted enthusiasm or pessimism in the market. And, this year it’s even worse because of calendar quirks.

Leap day added a sales day to the month, but more importantly it fell on a Saturday. So, the shortest month of the year had five weekends, something that hasn’t happened since 1992.

Some automakers report adjusted sales to compensate for the extra weekend on one month or a missing one in the next, but such mathematical games rarely provide much insight. Calendar weirdness works itself out given enough time, so quarterly numbers are best (even if Q1 is still a pretty lousy indicator).

Where does that leave us?

Sales were great for the automakers that still report monthly (Honda and Hyundai/Kia being the only majors in that group). If you adjust for the weekend, the numbers are fine. Honda swings from a gain to a slight loss – not surprising given it’s a car-heavy brand at a time when trucks and SUVs are doing better. Mazda falls from a 19% sales gain to a 10% gain.

With so few companies reporting, a month that is rarely statistically relevant, and once-in-every-three-decades calendar issue, there are few solid conclusions to take away from those monthly records.

But hey, it’s been a tough few weeks with a lot of uncertainty, the cancellation of a major global auto show, and car plants in Korea shutting down to disinfect equipment after a worker tested positive for COVID-19. So, let’s take our wins where we can get them.

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 19 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.

rschoenberger@gie.net