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August sales best in almost two years

by Bill Cawthon on

Cash for Clunkers (CfC) performed the desired miracles for light vehicle sales in August. Sales broke the 1 million mark for the first time this year, hitting 1,261,977 units and the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate (SAAR) was 14.09 million, the highest it’s been since May 2008. All in all, it was the best year-over-year performance since October 2007.

As was feared, the import carmakers fared the best under the federal program but that was due only in part to customer perceptions. Chrysler Group, especially, suffered due to short supplies of popular vehicles like the Dodge Caliber because of the factory shutdowns during its weeks in bankruptcy. Chrysler finished the month with a 28-day supply of inventory, well below the industry standard.

When all the numbers were tallied up, Chrysler Group sales were down 15.43 percent compared to August of 2008. That was enough to drop Chrysler to the bottom among the six major automakers for the month, though it still has a strong grip on fifth place in year-to-date (YTD) sales. Strong sales of the Dodge Caravan put it back on top of the minivan segment for the month, though it still lags the Honda Odyssey in YTD numbers. Solid improvements came in sales of the Chrysler 300, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Avenger while the PT Cruiser held its own. Challenger sales took a hit, partially because of the CfC program and partly because of consumer interest in the new Camaro which was easily the best-selling pony car in August.

Ford posted the best results among the Detroit automakers, beating its August 2008 numbers by 17.22 percent. Car sales and sales of Volvo vehicles were both up more than 24 percent and truck sales improved almost 13 percent. One shocker was the fact the Ford F-Series pickup, which had its first month-over-month sales gain since October 2006, was toppled from its perch at the top of the charts by the Toyota Camry with 8,806 more sales than the Ford pickup. The Ford remains the best-seller in YTD sales but the Camry is now well ahead of the Chevrolet Silverado, which has been the runner-up to the Ford for years. Ford also had the two best-selling American-badged passenger cars and the top American CUV.

General Motors took the biggest hit of the American automakers and one of the biggest hits of any non-premium automaker. Sales were down just over 20 percent on a volume basis with a small drop in passenger car sales magnified by a 30.7 percent plunge in light truck sales. Part of the GM slump was caused by a large drop in fleet sales but the company’s full-size pickups came in with the worst deficits of any of the American full-size pickups. The Silverado, normally second only to the Ford F-Series, dropped to the No. 6 spot for the first time in the ten years I have been tracking monthly sales.

Toyota hummed all the way to then bank as it cashed in on the Clunkers program. The top Japanese brand came in just over 20,000 sales behind GM and over 43,000 ahead of Ford, reclaiming the No. 2 spot for both the month and in YTD sales. As mentioned before, the Camry was the top-selling vehicle in August and Toyota had the most vehicles in the top 20 in YTD sales of any automaker. Toyota finished the month with a 6.41 percent sales gain, and an all-time record for sales of its passenger cars.

Honda set a new sales record, as well, posting a nearly 10 percent improvement in sales compared to last August. Sales of the Odyssey weren’t enough to catch up with the Caravan, but sales of the Accord were enough to drop the Chevy Silverado to sixth place in the monthly standings.

Nissan couldn’t quite match its numbers from a year ago, but very strong sales of the Versa and new Cube leapfroged it past Chrysler into the no. 5 position for the month. Nissan passenger car sales were up 38.4 percent in August as the Altima, Versa and Sentra all hit the top 20 in monthly sales.

Subaru posted an all-time sales record, beating its August 2008 numbers by 51.5 percent. Every line except the Tribeca SUV came in with double-digit gains.

Mazda also had a good month with sales up over 12 percent. The popular Mazda3 gets a lot of the credit for the improvement.

Though Mitsubishi sales were down nearly 26 percent, the company posted its best numbers of 2009. Suzuki also wound up in the red by about 5.5 percent as dwindling sales of its car line swamped a 37.1 percent jump in sales of its SUVs.

Both Korean automakers delivered new all-time sales records in August. Hyundai sales were up 47 percent and Kia sales skyrocketed more than 60 percent. Kia joined Subaru as the only automakers whose YTD sales are ahead of the first eight months of 2008. Hyundai is almost there, just 0.7 percent off its pace from last year.

Volkswagen and Audi both came in with improved sales. Strong sales of the Jetta, CC and Tiguan lifted VW’s results 11.4 percent ahead of August 2008 while the A4 lifted Audi to a 25.8 percent improvement. Outside of Subaru, Kia and Hyundai, Volkswagen has the best YTD performance of any major brand and is the best-selling European brand in the U.S. market.

Porsche also ended up in the winners’ column in August with sales up 8.7 percent.

BMW came in with its best numbers of the year, but was hampered by weak sales of its X-Series crossovers. BMW, which was at the top of the luxury brands, now trails Lexus by a slim margin in YTD sales. Mini sales were also down by 6.6 percent.

Daimler AG reported a 7.5 percent shortfall for Mercedes-Benz last month, leaving it firmly in the No. 3 position among premium brands. The Smart is still struggling, with sales down almost 33 percent, as it waits for the economy to pick up enough to allow the purchase of discretionary cars.

While there’s no doubt September sales will show evidence of a post-clunkers hangover, there is argument as to just how severe the correction might be. Without question, some sales were pulled forward by the government’s generosity but there is also a lot of evidence that many sales would not have happened at all without the big rebates. Combined with generous manufacturer incentives like Chrysler Group’s rebate-matching program, the government money made new vehicles more affordable than they have been in years. In my area, new 2009 PT Cruisers were being advertised for less than $10,000 and a similar bonanza of bargains could be found on almost any dealer’s lot.

What’s also encouraging is the improvement in sales of vehicles that weren’t eligible for the program. Luxury brands and many light trucks rose a bit, a hopeful sign the industry has seen the bottom of the pit and will slowly begin to see more normal sales.

While Chrysler still faces some rough months due to lack of new product, it can be hoped the market will improve enough to allow time for the alliance with Fiat to bear fruit. There’s no doubt that Sergio Marchione and his team are moving as quickly as possible to correct the years of neglect under Daimler and Cerberus and get fresh vehicles into the pipeline. It can also be hoped that the recently announced review of Chrysler’s advertising will help get the message out to carbuyers that Chrysler is making changes to produce new vehicles that can compete in the modern market. The BBDO legacy is one of the last vestiges of the old Chrysler that needed to be shed.

Though total YTD sales are still 27.9 percent behind last year’s, there’s at last a chance the industry will hit 10 million sales this year. If the remaining months of 2009 can hit the average of the first eight months, we can just squeak by that magic number and perhaps look forward to 12 million sales in 2010.

Top 20 for August
1. Toyota Camry – 54,396
2. Ford F-Series – 45,590
3. Honda Civic – 43,294
4. Toyota Corolla/Matrix – 43,061
5. Honda Accord – 39,726
6. Chevrolet Silverado – 32,421
7. Honda CR-V – 30,284
8. Nissan Altima – 26,833
9. Ford Focus – 25,547
10. Hyundai Elantra – 21,673
11. Ford Fusion – 21,010
12. Ford Escape – 20,933
13. Chevrolet Impala – 20,473
14. Toyota Prius – 18,886
15. Nissan Versa – 18,580
16. Toyota RAV4 – 18,312
17. Dodge Ram – 17,514
18. Chevrolet Cobalt – 17,393
19. Chevrolet Malibu – 17,348
20. Nissan Sentra – 16,396

Top 20 Jan-Aug 2009
1. Ford F-Series – 261,549
2. Toyota Camry – 238,612
3. Chevrolet Silverado – 209,987
4. Honda Accord – 200,543
5. Toyota Corolla/Matrix – 194,297
6. Honda Civic – 191,790
7. Nissan Altima – 142,513
8. Dodge Ram – 129,753
9. Honda CR-V – 128,352
10. Ford Fusion – 123,766
11. Ford Escape – 117,576
12. Ford Focus – 116,731
13. Chevrolet Impala – 113,809
14. Chevrolet Malibu – 108,516
15. Toyota RAV4 – 96,465
16. Toyota Prius – 93,810
17. Toyota Tacoma – 78,260
18. Honda Odyssey – 72,243
19. GMC Sierra – 72,189
20. Dodge Caravan – 60,800

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.

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