U.S. car, truck and SUV sales peaked in 2016, but stronger-than-expected November sales should push 2017 over the 17-million sales mark for the third consecutive year.
Autotrader Executive Analyst Michelle Krebs attributes robust November car sales — the second strongest ever and only a few thousand units behind last year’s record — to “a healthy economy, a confident consumer who is ready to buy and targeted incentives to help close the deals.”
Sales in 2016 hit a record 17.5 million. Cox Automotive analysts predict 2017 will close at about 17.1 million.
November continued the overall market shift in buyer preferences from midsize sedans to compact utilities and small crossovers, but some cars managed to buck the trend. Also, carmakers as a rule managed to move a higher percentage of transactions to retail, reducing fleet sales.
Sales-leader General Motors’ numbers were off more than expected, with Cadillac down almost 13 percent, while Chevrolet was a bright spot, with a smaller decline. Analyst Krebs attributes Cadillac’s drop to simply not having the vehicles the market wants — the company has more car models than utilities.
With a better-than-expected November performance, Ford moved a lot of very profitable F-Series pickups, and its Explorer, Edge and Escape SUVs made substantial gains. Ford, however, continued to incentivize its electrified vehicles, such as the Focus Electric and C-Max Energi, on a regional basis, with more than $10,000 in cash.
Sales at FCA were off less than expected, with the Chrysler brand up 14 percent, aided by beefy incentives such as a $9,000 lease spiff on the Pacifica minivan and up to $16,000 customer cash on some 300 AWD models. Although the Jeep brand was off 2 percent, the Compass and Cherokee SUVs both racked up healthy volume gains.
Despite some of the lowest incentive offers on the market, Honda made some impressive gains in November on the strength of its SUVs and Civic, but without the full benefit of the just-introduced new Accord. Locked in a tight 3-way race for the compact SUV sales crown, the Honda CR-V saw a 25 percent increase in sales, but will still likely close the year behind the hot-selling Toyota RAV4.
Toyota’s November sales declined 2.4 percent, with the Corolla seeing a steep drop and the Highlander slightly off from last year’s numbers, but the 4Runner SUV and Tacoma and Tundra pickups improved, and Toyota’s best-selling model this year, the RAV4, continued its sales gains. The big news was the torrid sales performance of the new Camry sedan, up 24 percent to become Toyota’s best-seller for November. But the Camry is unlikely to overtake the huge sales lead of the RAV4 with only one more month remaining in 2017.
The Big Picture
According to Cox Automotive Senior Economist Charlie Chesbrough, higher interest rates are on the horizon, and the ultimate ramifications of Washington D.C.’s fiscal policies are still to be determined. But Chesbrough observes that as calendar year 2017 comes to a close, “the economic stars are aligned to support a robust vehicle market, with employment, consumer confidence, housing sales and the stock market in good shape.”
It’s conventional wisdom that retailers are more likely to bargain on price at the end of the month or, in this case, the end of the year, as the pressure to make car sales quotas looms larger. And buyers have improved odds of getting a better deal on less popular models or ones that haven’t been updated in a few years — so right now, that’d mean bypassing that hot SUV or crossover and opting for a sedan. Particularly good offers are out there for slower-selling hybrids and electric cars — vehicles, incidentally, that will likely see tax credits reduced or eliminated in the not-too-distant future.
Also, at year’s end, look for automakers to sweeten lease pull-ahead offers. If you’re currently holding a lease with just a few months remaining, these present a good incentive to get back into the market.