DETROIT — Louis Cervi was looking to buy a small car for basic transportation with a monthly lease payment in the mid-$200 range.
After six months of looking, Cervi, 41, drove off a dealer lot north of Pittsburgh in a Ford Focus for $192 a month. The dealership even accepted his 2001 Chevrolet Monte Carlo with a failed transmission as a down payment.
“I thought I’d probably get something in the $240 (per month) range,” Cervi says. “It was the end of the month, so I think I got kind of lucky there. They were trying to meet a quota.”
With many Americans rushing to buy trucks and SUVs, there are good deals to be had on cars, especially smaller models. In April, supplies of small cars on dealer lots grew to the highest level in seven years. Automakers are resorting to discounts and sweetened lease deals to move the metal — especially with models that haven’t been updated in a few years.
In the 12 months ended April 30, small-car sales dropped more than 6 percent, according to Ward’s Automotive. At the same time, truck and SUV sales combined grew more than 10 percent. About 54 percent of U.S. vehicle sales this year have been trucks and SUVs. Just two years ago, cars ruled the market at 51 percent. While trucks and SUVs are expected to help the industry set a new annual sales record above 17.5 million vehicles, some experts are predicting a continued slowdown in sales of cars.
There are a number of reasons for the shift. Gas prices are low. SUVs generally are smaller, lighter and more efficient than in the past. Older people like the higher seating position an SUV offers because it’s easier to get in and out, and people of all ages use the hatchback and ample storage space.
Consumers also are more confident in the economy, and willing to spend on pricier SUVs, says Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights for the TrueCar.com auto pricing site.
Cervi wouldn’t have been as fortunate if he was after a hot-selling SUV. A Toyota RAV4, for instance, can be leased for three years at $199 per month, but a buyer has to put down $1,999. That translates to another $56 per month. RAV4 sales rose 32 percent last month.
Falling car sales, along with faster updates of compact cars, will pressure companies with older vehicles to offer discounts, Lyman said.
Some automakers have updated small cars after a year to include new features or overcome shortcomings pointed out by customers, he said. “It’s going to become more cutthroat,” Lyman said. “It means if you’re not keeping your vehicle up, you’re at a competitive disadvantage.”
Ford’s Focus hasn’t been redesigned since the 2012 model year and has fallen behind newer products such as the Honda Civic and the redesigned Chevrolet Cruze. That means manufacturers with older cars like Ford and Fiat Chrysler can’t charge as much as Honda or Chevy. Two weeks ago, Fiat Chrysler cut the price on some versions of its aging Dodge Dart, knocking $1,400 off the SXT model to $17,995. Dealers also are offering up to $2,750 cash back on some models.
“Every car in the industry, as it ages, seeks to provide more value,” said Tom Sacoman, director of the Dodge brand.
Without the all-new Civic, small car sales would have been abysmal. Through April, its sales are up 29 percent. As a result, Honda can get more for a lease than others. It’s offering a 36-month Civic LX at $179 per month — but you have to put down $1,999 — $56 more per month — to get it.
Richard Bazzy, who owns the dealership that leased Cervi his Focus, said Ford is supporting dealers by funding lease deals. He said small cars remain a huge market for him and other dealers even though sales have fallen. So far this year, people have bought nearly 1 million small cars in the U.S.