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September sales soar; Chrysler leads the way

by Bill Cawthon on

Jeep GC Climb

True to expectations, last month’s light vehicle sales were a major improvement compared to last year’s post-rebate “September Swoon.” Industrywide, sales were up 28.5% with almost all manufacturers reporting increases and some reporting new monthly sales records. Year-to-date (YTD) sales are now 10.3% ahead of the first nine months of 2009.

September’s results also soothed some analysts’ concerns about a second-half slump. Total sales volume was down 3.9% compared to August 2010 but the drop was less than anticipated and in line with normal August-September declines. The seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 11.76 million was actually better than August 2010’s 11.47 million and a far cry from the dismal 9.38 million posted last year. This points to a real, but slow, recovery. Another sign is the fact light trucks outsold passenger cars for the first time in more than a year. Light truck share in September was 50.5 percent, 4.4 points ahead of last September.

Chrysler had a banner month: sales rose 60.9 percent, market share climbed 2.1 points to 10.4 percent, and the company even beat its August 2010 numbers, a feat shared by only a couple of automakers. To make the month even sweeter, Chrysler outsold American Honda to claim the No. 4 spot in the rankings. And Sergio and the gang did it all while reducing incentive spending.

While Chrysler had a very poor showing in September 2009, making comparisons almost mean-spirited, it’s still fun to check out some of the improvements, like the Jeep Compass’ 979.2% leap or the 651.8% gain turned in by its Belvidere sibling, the Dodge Caliber. Perhaps more meaningful from a forward-looking viewpoint is the 94.9% increase in sales of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Fleet sales continue to eat up Sebrings and Avengers; Sebring YTD sales have almost doubled from the first three quarters of last year.

Two minor concerns: the Ram pickup still lags behind 2009 in YTD – though the deficit is only 1.6 percent, the Ram is the only full-size pickup still in the red. The Toyota Sienna took the top spot in the minivan market for September, though the Town & Country still has the overall lead in for the year.

Like Chrysler, Ford had a standout month, outstripping the most optimistic of the analysts and beating its August 2010 numbers by 1.9 percent. With sales up 46.4 percent, the folks in Dearborn added two points of market share as they watched the F-series pickup head toward another year as the best-selling vehicle in the land. The F-series pickup is now 118,000 sales ahead of the second-place Silverado, a gap that’s unlikely to be closed in the three months remaining in this sales year. Lincoln sales were up, but the fact remains that Ford’s upmarket brand is currently eighth in the luxury segment, having fallen behind Audi, and Ford’s new marketing plan probably won’t be enough to overcome bland, lackluster products that remain nothing more than upcontented Fords with toothy grins. Given their stewardship of Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, it’s fair to wonder if Ford has a real understanding of the market and the forces that drive it. A campaign stressing content value spearheaded by an actor who plays a Madison Avenue ad executive from nearly fifty years ago probably isn’t going to help sales much but, in an odd sort of way, it may very well provide an insight into Ford’s view of the luxury car buyer.

General Motors’ September was in line with analysts’ estimates. Sales were up 11.1% overall and up 22.8% if one counts just the four “core” brands, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC. However, GM lost 2.8 points of market share and both overall and core brand sales fell short of August 2010 levels. Pickup sales were greatly improved, even if they couldn’t catch up with Ford, but sales of the big SUVs fell dramatically. GM’s performance compared to its competition might give the company’s executives a reason to reexamine that initial public offering, but the honchos in the Renaissance Center are so focused on the dash for the cash that shaky fundamentals aren’t even a consideration.

In the muscle car race, the Camaro is still ahead in both monthly and YTD sales, followed by the Mustang and the Challenger.

The leading Japanese automakers saw decent increases over last year but not in the same league as Chrysler and Ford. Both Honda and Toyota lost market share in September. Honda sales were up 26.1 percent, driven by a 47.7% gain recorded by Acura, but the company lost 0.2 points of share. Toyota sales grew 16.8% with good Toyota Division sales hampered by weak Lexus results, but Toyota gave up 1.5 points of share. Nissan was the big winner, finishing the month with sales up 34% and an extra 0.3 points of the market. None of the three were able to beat their August 2010 numbers.

Among the Japanese B-team, Mazda finished 30.5% ahead of September 2009, Mitsubishi was in the black by 5.3% and Suzuki came up 11.8% short. Subaru set an all-time September sales record with a 46.9% surplus but Subaru sales plunged 25.3% compared to August 2010, the largest shortfall of any automaker.

The Korean automakers both announced new September sales records: Hyundai sales jumped 47.7% and Kia sales grew 39.1% compared to last September.

All of the European carmakers, except Volvo, were ahead of their September 2009 results. Saab had the largest improvement, up 132.9 percent, but also has a lot of room for further improvement in the U.S. market. Of the major players, BMW had the largest gain, with 21.1% followed by Mercedes-Benz with 20.9 percent. Audi finished a record third quarter with a 13.1% gain and Volkswagen beat its year-ago numbers by 14.9 percent. Volkswagen noted that about 27% of the vehicles it sold were equipped with diesel engines: one wonders when a certain American carmaker is going to start offering them in their U.S. products since it already offers them in its vehicles built for export to Europe. Hybrids aren’t the only answer to improving fuel economy – they may not even be the best answer.

As mentioned earlier, the Ford F-series looks like it will rack up another year as the nation’s favorite vehicle. However, the race for second is still open: the Silverado has a pretty good lead but not yet a lock; the Toyota Camry could still pull off a major upset. Mercedes was once again the top brand in the premium segment, followed by BMW and Lexus. Lexus still has the YTD lead, but this race is way too close to call: the margin is slim – Lexus is just 2,709 sales ahead of Mercedes, which is less than the September spread between the two brands.

It’s not likely that automakers will see a 12-million-sale year in 2010. Barring the unforeseen spanner in the works, a figure of 11.85 million looks far more likely. But even hitting that number puts the industry on track for a 12 million-plus market in 2011 and with the number of new vehicles coming on line in the next 12 months, that number could easily go higher.

Top selling cars Sept. 2010 Top selling cars YTD 2010
1 Toyota Camry 30,769 Toyota Camry 250,830
2 Honda Accord 24,127 Honda Accord 235,631
3 Toyota Corolla/Matrix 21,060 Toyota Corolla/Matrix 209,186
4 Hyundai Sonata 20,639 Honda Civic 198,272
5 Nissan Altima 20,016 Nissan Altima 168,897
6 Honda Civic 18,637 Chevrolet Malibu 163,246
7 Chevrolet Malibu 16,289 Ford Fusion 161,581
8 Ford Fusion 15,918 Hyundai Sonata 149,123
9 Ford Focus 13,587 Ford Focus 134,253
10 Chevrolet Impala 12,186 Chevrolet Impala 133,585

Top selling light trucks Sept. 2010 Top selling light trucks YTD 2010
1 Ford F series 47,433 Ford F series 385,879
2 Chevrolet Silverado 32,185 Chevrolet Silverado 267,715
3 Honda CR-V 17,907 Honda CR-V 144,286
4 Ram 16,887 Ford Escape 142,820
5 Toyota RAV4 14,685 Ram 140,889
6 Ford Escape 14,313 Toyota RAV4 126,391
7 Ford Edge 12,815 Chevrolet Equinox 99,055
8 Chevrolet Equinox 11,658 GMC Sierra 90,235
9 GMC Sierra 11,077 Chrysler Town & Country 87,493
10 Jeep Grand Cherokee 10,915 Ford Edge 87,135

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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