March auto sales gain, reversing 2018 losses for several automakers

March auto sales gain, reversing 2018 losses for several automakers

Increased fleet sales, more SUV availability push numbers higher for most companies.


Buick Encore crossover sales increased 81% in March, the best month of 2018 for most major automakers.

Cleveland, Ohio – Several automakers increased sales of cars to rental fleets, others made more sport utility vehicles available to buyers, and others turned to cash-back incentives in March.

Whatever the tactics, it worked, resulting in the biggest gains for automakers for the year – a 5.6% increase for the seven largest manufacturers who combined to selling about 80% of the vehicles on the road. For several automakers, March numbers were strong enough to pull 2018 into positive territory (January and February are the smallest sales months of the year, so March tends to be a better indicator for the rest of the year).

Results by company are:

  • General Motors – 296,341; 15.7%. Trucks and SUVs pushed GM to its best month in quite some time. Buck had its best March since 2004, Chevrolet’s best since 2007, and GMC’s best ever. A handful of vehicles are responsible for the turnaround from a lackluster January and February. At Buick, the Envision small SUV was responsible for virtually of the gains. At Chevrolet, a 41% rise for Equinox crossovers, a 24% climb for Silverado pickups, and a 41% jump for Traverse crossovers made up for weak car sales (the Bolt EV electric car was an exception, climbing 81% to 1,774 units). On the down side, some of that increase came from low-profit fleet sales. Retail sales were up 14% during March, but fleet increased 24%.
  • Ford – 244,306; 3.4%. The cars-down/trucks-up story continues at Ford, where a 7% rise in F-Series truck sales was offset by a 7% decline for its entire car business. Ford was much more reliant on fleet sales in March (35% of sales) than GM (21%). And the biggest increase came from the lowest-paying buyers – rental car companies. Still, the company produced solid results with average transaction prices climbing, retail sales up, and 87,011 pickups sold, the best March numbers for F-Series since 2000.
  • Toyota – 222,782; 3.5%. The Avalon, a large sedan marketed to senior citizens who feel abandoned by Buick’s old land yachts, was the only car in Toyota’s lineup in positive territory. Even with a redesign and higher availability, the Camry (still the best-selling car in the U.S.) was down slightly. Thankfully, trucks and SUVs surged. SUVs climbed 17.5%, thanks mainly to the Highlander crossover and newly launched C-HR small crossover. Trucks were up 18.6% with the Tacoma small pickup up 21%.
  • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles LLC (FCA US) – 216,063; 13.6%. When Jeep Compass sales jump 6.5x, Wrangler sales spike 70%, and Cherokee posts a 63% rise, the rest of the company can take a breather. The current popularity of SUVs is custom-made for good Jeep results. Things were harder for other divisions – Ram trucks down 13%, Dodge off 2%, and Fiat down 47%. Thanks to the streamlining of the brand (200 nearly off the books, Town & Country minivan sales no longer showing up in reports), the Chrysler brand had a solid month, up 15%. That brand is effectively down to two vehicles – the 300 sedan and Pacifica minivan, and both were up double digits.
  • Nissan – 162,535; -3.7%. One of only two major automakers in the red for March, Nissan’s fantastic crossover sales numbers from the past few years finally caught up to them. Rogue small crossover sales were only up 6.7%, a good increase but far lower than the double-digit gains it’s been posting. On the car side, sales were down 8.9% with everything except the Sentra compact and Leaf electric car in negative territory.
  • Honda – 142,392; 3.8%. Honda’s marketing gurus aren’t idiots. When SUVs are hot, they ask the factory to make more so they can sell more. Pilot SUV sales jumped 42.4% because dealers had more to sell, and that 5,000-unit sales increase was the difference between March 2017 and March 2018 for the entire company.  Also helping gains, car sales were flat instead of creating a drag for the rest of the company. Accord sedan sales were down 10%, but increases for the Civic compact and several Acura cars offset those declines.
  • Hyundai/Kia – 112,185; -5.5%. Kia posted a healthy 2.5% increase, thanks almost entirely to gains from the Sportage crossover. At the recent New York International Auto Show, Hyundai showed off several new or updated SUVs, but they’re not available yet, and that’s hurting results. Hyundai was off 11.2%, even with a 31.4% increase in Tucson crossover sales. The Tucson and Sante Fe get updates for 2019, and Hyundai officials hope that will stabilize 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 18 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.