Automakers Notch Sales Bounce a Year After Covid-19 Onset

Automakers posted higher sales in the first quarter as General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and others benefited from strong demand for new cars and trucks in comparison with a year earlier, when the spread of Covid-19 shut showrooms.

U.S. auto sales surged by more than 8% in the quarter, according to analysts’ estimates. The gain reflects buying as vaccination rates increase and more people return to their pre-pandemic routines. Increased confidence in the economy and worry about lower supplies of cars due to computer chip shortages also helped boost deliveries.

Automakers Notch Sales Bounce a Year After Covid-19 Onset

Major carmakers either met or beat handily a consensus forecasts of analysts, most of whom projected quarterly gains due to the disastrous performance in the first quarter of last year.

“Everybody is up because March last year was a train wreck,” Judith Wheeler, Nissan’s vice president for U.S. sales, said in an interview. “For the overall industry, we expect it to be a very good year.”

Automakers Notch Sales Bounce a Year After Covid-19 Onset

SUV Split-Decision

GM’s sales increased 3.9% in the quarter, led by demand for sport-utility vehicles such as the midsize Chevrolet Traverse and full-size Cadillac Escalade. Strength in deliveries of those models helped offset lower sales of vehicles such as the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain compact crossover SUV that have been impacted by temporary shutdowns of plants in Ontario and Mexico.

Despite semiconductor scarcity that is prompting factory closures, GM expects a solid year of growth. It projects the annualized selling rate for the industry will hit 16.7 million vehicles, which is above the average analysts’ estimate of 16.5 million.

“Consumer confidence and spending will continue to increase due to stimulus, rising vaccination rates and the progressive reopening of the economy,” Elaine Buckberg, GM’s chief economist, said in a statement. “Auto demand should remain strong throughout the year.”

Automakers Notch Sales Bounce a Year After Covid-19 Onset

Stellantis NV, formerly known as Fiat Chrysler, posted a 5% gain for the quarter while Ford Motor Co. saw a slight 0.6% uptick. Both automakers benefited from strong demand for their pickups and SUVs. Stellantis’s Ram 1500 pulled ahead of the rival Silverado model from GM for bragging rights as the best-selling truck behind Ford’s industry-leading F-150.

Ram outsold the Chevrolet Silverado by more than 22,000 units after Chevy won the No. 2 truck spot in 2020. That may be a matter of supply -- Chevrolet has been eliminating truck options from its assembly lines to keep production going, and Stellantis has plenty of extra inventory of its Ram Classic, the older, more affordable version of its Ram 1500.

All three Detroit automakers have struggled to hoard enough chips for their most profitable models. Stellantis said last week it would close half its plants in North America and Ford said Wednesday it’s being forced to idle a pair of F-150 factories.

Dearth of Chips

The global semiconductor shortfall is draining dealer lots of cars and trucks -- and forcing buyers to pay more to secure a new set of wheels. New-model inventory available at U.S dealerships fell 36% in March while average transaction prices rose 5% to an estimated $40,563, according to automotive researcher Edmunds.

“The stronger sales results are bumping against ongoing production issues, creating what could be a volatile demand environment over the next few months,” Chris Hopson, manager of North America light vehicle forecast for IHS Markit, said in a statement.

Automakers Notch Sales Bounce a Year After Covid-19 Onset

Sales of Toyota’s full-size Tundra pickup were flat in March compared with a year earlier, reflecting a prolonged shutdown of its assembly line at a plant in San Antonio, Texas. Never the most popular vehicle in the automaker’s lineup, the Tundra has borne the brunt of the semiconductor shortfall.

But overall, Toyota reported a healthy 22% jump in quarterly sales -- including a striking 87% surge in March -- to 603,066 vehicles. Buyers flocked to its best-selling RAV4 crossover SUV and popular Tacoma midsize truck. The Japanese company’s Lexus luxury brand reported its second-highest volume ever for the first quarter and best ever for March, led by sales of the RX sport-utility vehicle.

Fleet Demand Recovery?

The auto industry has retail buyers to thank, since multivehicle corporate clients largely disappeared at the height of the pandemic and have remained bit players in recent months. Fleet purchases -- often at discounted rates -- fell about 30% in the first quarter, according to analysts’ estimates.

That reflected lower demand from rental car and other fleet buyers, as well as dwindling vehicle supplies as automakers prioritized higher-margin retail sales. But there are signs that the dearth in fleet business may be close to bottoming out.

Automakers Notch Sales Bounce a Year After Covid-19 Onset

“I can tell the economy is starting to rebound because our rental car partners are really aggressively asking us for more vehicles,” Randy Parker, Hyundai Motor Co.’s top sales executive in the U.S., said in an interview. “So what that tells me is the rental car side of the business is really starting to pick up.”

Hyundai’s deliveries rose 28% in the first quarter to 167,130 vehicles, with the Tucson compact SUV leading the way. But less than 10,000 of those went to fleet buyers.

Nissan Motor Co. is also optimistic that multivehicle buyers will start to become more of a presence in the sales picture.

“Fleet is definitely coming back. We will try to do our part to give them some inventory, but we’re going to focus on retail,” Nissan’s Wheeler said.

Nissan Breaks Fall

The Japanese automaker reported a gain for the first time in nine quarters, with a 10.8% increase to 285,553 vehicles. A 45% jump in deliveries of its Rogue crossover SUV accounted for almost one-third of total deliveries as the brand attempts to rebuild. Unlike its upscale competitors Cadillac and Lexus, Nissan’s Infiniti brand saw no upswing -- sales crashed 25% to less than 20,000 vehicles.

Rival Honda Motor Co. posted a 16% increase in first-quarter deliveries to 347,091 vehicles and set a new March sales record. Demand for its best-selling CR-V crossover SUV more than doubled in March and buyers took a shine to a refashioned Ridgeline pickup, with sales more than tripling last month.

Electric-vehicle market leader Tesla Inc. has not provided guidance on when it will release its first-quarter sales numbers.

Established automakers have vowed to crack Tesla’s lock on EV sales, and investors have warmed recently to their ambitious plans. In one early sign of progress, Ford reported a 74% jump in EV sales, driven by demand for its battery powered Mustang Mach-E and new gas-electric hybrid F-150 pickup.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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