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Originally published September 4, 2013 at 6:50 PM | Page modified September 5, 2013 at 1:28 PM

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Detroit doesn't have enough cars to sell

U.S. automakers, who just five years ago had to offer huge discounts and incentives to move vehicles out of showrooms, posted double-digit gains in sales last month and reported tight inventories on some models.

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES —

Strong August auto-sales numbers revealed a problem last month that Ford, General Motors and Chrysler once would have begged for — not enough cars to sell.

All three automakers posted double-digit gains in sales last month, and they reported tight inventories on some models.

For Ford, it’s the Fusion sedan and Explorer and Escape crossovers; they just can’t build them fast enough. In Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, a Fusion is lasting just 13 days at a dealership before being sold. Typically cars can sit on a lot for two months.

Chevrolet, produced by GM, has only a 35-day supply of its Cruze and can sell every unit of its newly redesigned Impala that it makes. Chrysler needs more Jeeps and Fiat 500Ls.

It’s quite a turnabout for the domestic brands, which just five years ago had to offer huge discounts and incentives to move vehicles out of showrooms.

“Keeping things on the lean side is a much better place to be,” said Jeff Schuster, an analyst at LMC Automotive.

They might miss out on some sales, but that sure beats offering the friends-and-family discount to everyone with a driver’s license.

It’s a conundrum for the automakers.

“You don’t want to go back to the bad old days when you had too many cars to sell, but you also want to have enough inventory so that customers can find the vehicles with the options they want,” said Elaine Kwei, an analyst at the Jefferies investment firm.

“It’s hard to imagine that the Detroit guys find themselves in this position,” she said.

Ford plans to increase production by about 50,000 vehicles during the fourth quarter, a 7 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. It also hired 1,400 new workers at its Flat Rock, Mich., assembly plant to build more Fusions.

Tighter supplies are translating into higher prices and greater profits, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with auto-price company TrueCar.com.

The average transaction price for Ford vehicles last month rose 6.9 percent to $33,460, its highest ever, Toprak said. GM saw its average transaction price rise 4.3 percent to $33,492 in August.

TrueCar.com estimated U.S. auto sales reached about 1.5 million vehicles last month, up about 14 percent from the same month a year earlier.

“Based on everything we see, the economy is on solid footing, which means the industry should remain strong,” said Kurt McNeil, vice president of GM’s U.S. sales operations.

GM said it sold 275,847 vehicles in the U.S. last month, up 14.7 percent compared with the same month a year earlier.

Ford said it sold 221,270 vehicles in August, a 12.2 percent increase from the previous year.

Chrysler Group said it sold 165,552 vehicles in the U.S. last month, a 12 percent gain from the same month a year earlier.

Toyota said it sold 231,537 vehicles in the U.S. last month, a 22.8 percent increase from August a year ago.

Nissan said its U.S. sales hit 120,498 vehicles last month, a 22.3 percent gain and an August record for the Japanese automaker.

Market-research firm J.D. Power and Associates said consumer spending on new vehicles in August will approach $36 billion, the highest level on record.

Still, the industry should temper its excitement, said Jack Nerad, an analyst at auto-information company Kelley Blue Book.

Aging cars that need replacing and low interest rates have enabled the auto industry to beat overall economic growth, Nerad said.

“But that doesn’t mean that sales will continue at the strong pace we’ve seen in August,” he said. “The overall economic recovery is weak and fragile, so another shock could send sales back.”

Leasing also played a role.

“Attractive low lease payments have proven very effective at getting new-car buyers back into the market,” said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at the industry researcher Edmunds.com.

In 2013, leasing has accounted for 26 percent of new-vehicle purchases, according to Edmunds.com. In the years before the recession, leasing accounted for 16 to 20 percent, with activity focused on high-end cars and trucks.

General Motors, the nation’s largest automaker, has reaped the rewards. On Wednesday it said its August sales rose 14.7 percent, its strongest month since September 2008. Ford Motor, which has taken a more conservative approach on leasing, posted a rise of 12 percent, and the Chrysler Group, 11.5 percent.

For all three companies, the increases were led by a mix of small and midsize cars and trucks.

Auto dealers also point to the revival in leasing, which slowed in the recession as GM and Chrysler worked through bankruptcy, as a factor.

“Leasing has made an amazing recovery,” said Kirt Frye, president of Sunnyside Automotive Group in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.

Higher residual values, thanks to a robust used-car market, and record-low interest rates mean lower monthly payments for buyers with good credit.

The average monthly lease payment was $408, down from $416 last year, according to Experian Automotive, which analyzes automotive data.

Includes material from The New York Times.

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