The auto industry broadly topped expectations for the month of May, as demand for pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles fueled sales in the U.S.
Sales were on a tear for much of 2013. Automakers have benefited from higher activity in the housing and energy sectors, as well as low interest rates. However, new-vehicle sales slowed down during the winter months before picking up in April.
According to Autodata, the seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) for sales of light vehicles hit 16.77 million units in May, marking the third consecutive month the SAAR topped 16 million. The results blew past estimates, with Kelley Blue Book forecasting an annual rate of 16.05 million.
Autodata also said total industry sales raced 15.7% higher compared to April. Deliveries rose 11.4% versus to the year-ago month.
“It’s interesting to look at where the winners and losers are. If there’s any weakness, it continues to be the small and mid-size sedan segments,” said Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
Gutierrez explained that trucks and SUVs are in high demand, and consumers may be favoring more fuel-efficient utilities over sedans.
General Motors (GM), whose sales are being closely watched after a spate of recalls this year, easily beat estimates with a 12.6% increase in sales last month.
GM delivered 284,694 vehicles, up from 252,894 in May 2013. The company saw gains across all of its brands. Retail sales, or vehicles sold by dealers to consumers, jumped 10%.
Detroit-based GM, the nation’s largest automaker, said the monthly sales total was its best since August 2008. The company expects to increase its total market share in 2014.
Analysts at Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com expected GM to post a smaller year-over-year increase of 7.2% and 6.7%, respectively.
“The momentum we generated in April carried into May, with all four brands performing well in a growing economy and 17 vehicle lines posting double-digit retail sales increases or better,” Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. vice president of sales operations, said in a statement.
Chevrolet led the way with sales that jumped 14%, driven by a 26% increase in car deliveries. The Camaro was up 30%, while sales of the Impala full-size sedan rose 23%.
Demand for GM’s new pickup trucks was strong. GM sold 7.8% more Chevrolet Silverado pickups, or 46,648 units, while sales of the GMC Sierra were up 14% at 18,326.
Overall, GMC saw an 8.3% increase in sales. Cadillac climbed 6.4% amid big results for the Escalade SUV and CTS sedan. Buick sales checked in with 11% growth.
May had 27 selling days, one more than last year.
Earlier this year, GM announced recalls covering 2.6 million vehicles worldwide to fix defective ignition switches. The issue has attracted scrutiny from lawmakers and the Department of Justice, since some GM engineers were aware of a possible defect as early as 2001. The faulty parts can be traced back to 13 deaths.
An internal investigation, which is being conducted by former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas, is expected to be completed as early as this week.
Most analysts have dampened concerns over GM sales amid the safety issues, saying the ignition-switch recall covers models that are now defunct.
“Looking back to sales performance in March, April and certainly this month, we haven’t seen sales waver,” Gutierrez said. “It looks like GM has been able to escape the negative press.”
Shares of GM rose 34 cents, or 1%, to $35.20 in recent trading on Tuesday.
Ford’s (F) sales rose 3% to 254,084 vehicles on higher SUV deliveries that offset weaker results for pickup trucks.
Sales of F-series trucks dropped 4.3% to 68,520 units in May, ahead of the launch of a redesigned F-150. Total truck sales were down 0.8%.
Ford plans to revamp two manufacturing facilities to build the new F-150, which will be made of aluminum. A truck plant in Dearborn, Mich., will be shut down for 10 weeks, and another plant in Kansas City will be closed for three weeks.
As a result, the company has stockpiled 2014 models to maintain ample supply of F-150 pickups.
“We’ve been building our inventory to help us get through this transition period,” said John Felice, vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service.
Speaking on a conference call after the May sales report, Felice also said Ford expects to keep incentives in check compared to its competitors in the truck market.
“What we’re really focusing on is managing our business for profitability over the long haul as we manage the F-150 transition,” he added.
Other manufacturers will likely follow Ford and cut back on incentives for pickup trucks, Gutierrez said. He added that Ford’s aluminum F-150 is “a glimpse of what’s to come across the segment.”
Cars fared better last month with a 1.7% sales gain, and utilities climbed 9.5%. Ford said the Fusion mid-size car set a sales record for May. Meanwhile, deliveries of the redesigned Escape marked an all-time record for the SUV.
The namesake brand posted sales growth of 2.5%. Sales at Lincoln, Ford’s luxury brand, were up 21%.
Ford’s total sales beat expectations. Kelley Blue Book projected sales to rise 0.4%. Edmunds had a slightly higher estimate of 0.9% growth.
Ford shares ticked 11 cents higher to $16.55. Ford is up about 7% since the start of 2014.
Chrysler Group posted a double-digit gain, saying sales jumped 17% amid continued strength at Jeep and Ram Truck.
The Fiat Chrysler Automobiles unit sold 194,421 vehicles, its best May results since 2007. A 38% increase in truck sales offset a 27% decline for cars.
Kelley Blue Book was looking for overall sales to improve 12.8%. Edmunds projected a 14.4% improvement.
Both Jeep and Ram have lifted Chrysler in recent months. Jeep, which launched the all-new Cherokee SUV last fall, booked sales growth of 58%. May marked the first time Jeep’s monthly U.S. sales surpassed 70,000 units.
“Our Jeep sport-utility vehicles and Ram pickups continued to do well in May as our dealers reported brisk May sales over five weekends and the Memorial Day holiday,” Reid Bigland, Chrysler’s head of U.S. sales, said in a statement.
Ram sales rose 19%, with pickup trucks posting their best May sales since 2005. Heavy-duty truck sales were up 34%.
Gutierrez noted how Ram has found success by catering to more low-end buyers and pushing more incentives.
“The truck market isn’t growing as much as it did last year, but it’s still strong,” he added.
Dodge, which recently unveiled new versions of its Challenger muscle car and four-door Charger, reported a sales increase of 3% higher amid strong demand for the Dart compact car.
In an effort to support sales of the current models, Dodge said buyers can sign a deal for a 2014 Challenger or Charger and exchange it for a new 2015 model when it hits showrooms later this year. The Challenger set a May sales record, while Charger sales were flat year-over-year.
Chrysler’s namesake lineup saw a 22% drop in sales volume. Fiat climbed 18%.
Early last month, Fiat Chrysler laid out its plans for global sales growth. The automaker, now the world’s seventh largest, expects to invest $7 billion on a re-launch of the Alfa Romeo sports-car brand. Fiat Chrysler is also banking on a revival of Maserati and a worldwide expansion of Jeep.
Chief executive Sergio Marchionne has said Fiat Chrysler could begin trading in the U.S. as soon as Oct. 1.
Toyota’s (TM) May sales leaped 17% to 243,236 vehicles. The company said May was its best month in six years. Lexus had a particularly strong period, as sales volume grew 21%.
Toyota Shares rallied nearly 1% to $114.99 after the results easily beat estimates. Edmunds was looking for a gain of 10.5%.
Fellow Japanese automaker Nissan sold 135,934 vehicles last month, reflecting a 19% gain year-over-year. The Nissan segment reported sales growth of 18%, while luxury brand Infiniti saw a 31% improvement.
Nissan was expected to book sales growth of about 13%.
Volkswagen and Audi sold a combined 48,764 vehicles, down 4.8% and missing expectations from Edmunds. Volkswagen was down 15% for the month, while Audi had its second-best month ever after lifting sales by 25.5%.
Honda (HMC) sold 152,603 of its namesake vehicles and Acura luxury cars, an increase of 9%. The automaker said the Accord, Civic and CR-V performed well during “brisk May business,” while its Acura luxury brand saw sales climbed 2.2%.
“With our three core models out-selling some entire brands and the all-new Fit starting to hit the ground next week, our dealers are preparing for heavy customer traffic in the coming months,” said Jeff Conrad, senior vice president and general manager of the Honda division.
Kelley Blue Book was looking for sales growth of just 2.1%. Honda shares were trading 11 cents lower at $35.16.
Hyundai and Kia posted combined sales of 130,994, up 8.5% over May 2013 to top estimates. It was Kia’s first month of at least 60,000 units sold.