||Auto Sales Sizzle, Forecasts Rise
Busy Showrooms, 17 Percent Rise in January Transactions Spark Optimism
So many retail customers are pouring into dealer showrooms that several carmakers and analysts have boosted their 2011 sales forecasts.
TrueCar.com says January's retail SAAR was 10.2 million, up from 8.3 million a year earlier. And that retail burst lifted January's overall selling rate to its highest level since cash for clunkers 18 months ago: a seasonally adjusted 12.6 million units.
"Consumers are driving much of the gain," said Don Johnson, General Motors' U.S. sales boss.
Light-vehicle sales in January jumped 17 percent from a year earlier to 819,938 units.
Among the top seven automakers, according to industry sources, combined fleet sales declined by 12 percent and retail sales rose 28 percent.
"Retail sales were much stronger than fleet," said J.P. Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel in a note to investors. "Fleet sales were down, primarily driven by weaker daily-rental sales."
Light trucks outsold cars for the fourth straight month. And General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. fired the first shots in what some analysts fear could become a new incentives war.
January's overall SAAR of 12.6 million was fractionally higher than December's and above the Bloomberg consensus forecast of 12.4 million. Last year U.S. sales were 11.6 million, up 11 percent over 2009.
The retail gains encouraged automakers and analysts.
"The recovery is being fueled by real, natural demand and by consumers who aren't just buying what they need but also starting to buy because they want to," said TrueCar analyst Jesse Toprak. "The most promising thing is the retail growth."
GM's Johnson credited retail for the automaker's 22 percent January sales increase.
GM and Ford last month each added half a million units to the upper range of their 2011 sales forecasts -- both to 13.3 million units. IHS Automotive boosted its forecast to 13.1 million from 12.8 million.
On Jan. 27, J.D. Power and Associates raised its forecast to 12.9 million from 12.8 million. So far, TrueCar's Toprak has not changed his 12.7 million forecast. But he's reviewing it and said: "There is more upside than downside this year."
Several automakers are sticking with 2011 projections made at the start of the year but say they are leaning toward the upper end of their ranges after January's results.
Except for Mazda's 9 percent decline, all automakers boosted sales in January. Hyundai-Kia Automotive, Chrysler Group and GM outperformed the market. Hyundai-Kia gained 24 percent, Chrysler rose 23 percent, and GM rode an incentive surge to its 22 percent sales increase.
Three groups increased volume but lost market share. Nissan North America's sales rose 15 percent, American Honda Motor Co. was up 13 percent, and Ford Motor Co. rose 9 percent.
Ford-brand sales were up 22 percent, but Ford said its lower overall figure reflected a planned 27 percent decline in sales to daily rental companies, as well as last year's elimination of Mercury and sale of Volvo.
George Pipas, Ford's chief sales analyst, said he expects retail sales to provide more growth than fleet this year, especially in the first half.
At Ford, fleet declined to 30 percent of total January sales, from 37 percent a year earlier. The daily rental mix was down to 12 percent of the total, from 18 percent last January. Pipas expects sales to commercial fleets to increase this year for Ford.
Toyota Motor Sales' 17 percent gain matched the industry's growth. But for Toyota, which has emphasized its retail strength for a year, January's growth was driven by fleet sales. A 7,000-unit Corolla fleet delivery made the small sedan the best-selling car in the country in January, Toyota said, and increased the fleet mix for the Toyota brand.
"Our January fleet was 12.6 percent of the mix, compared to 8.5 percent for (all of) 2010," said Toyota brand General Manager Bob Carter. But he insisted Toyota intends to limit fleet to 2010 levels over the year ahead.
Sales of full-sized pickups sizzled in January -- up 29 percent to 94,320. Every model posted gains of at least 22 percent except the Nissan Titan, which was down 4 percent to 1,431.
Sales of pickups, vans, SUVs and crossovers rose 29 percent to 413,276, and cars gained 7 percent to 406,662. A year ago, cars led light trucks by almost 60,000 units.
Subaru of America, the only brand to increase U.S. volume three straight years starting in 2008, started the New Year with a 21 percent sales gain.
(Source: Automotive News, 02/07/11)