Lured by deals, buyers go for SUVs, pickups


By DEE-ANN DURBIN, AP Auto Writer

DETROIT (AP) — Lured by Presidents Day deals, U.S. buyers snapped up pickups and SUVs in February, brightening what is usually a lackluster month for the auto industry.

Overall sales of new vehicles fell 1 percent from last February to 1.3 million, according to Autodata Corp. But automakers made up the difference with strong sales of more profitable SUV and trucks. Sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup jumped 17 percent to more than 50,500 trucks. Ford sold nearly 69,000 SUVs — a February record. Nissan said sales of its Rogue SUV were up 54 percent.

General Motors and Nissan both saw 4 percent sales gains over last February. Volkswagen’s sales were up 13 percent and Honda’s sales were up 2 percent.

But those gains were offset by declines at other automakers. Fiat Chrysler’s sales fell 10 percent, hurt by declining sales of Jeeps. Toyota’s sales dropped 7 percent. Ford’s sales fell 4 percent. Hyundai’s sales were flat.

Good deals reeled in buyers. Ford was offering $15,000 off on a 2016 Focus electric, while GM was offering zero-percent financing and up to $10,000 off certain GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickups, according to car shopping site Autotrader.com. Buyers could get $5,000 off a Nissan Altima sedan.

Incentives per vehicle rose an estimated 13.5 percent to $3,443 last month, according to automotive forecasting firm ALG. GM was the biggest spender, at $4,547 per vehicle. Subaru spent the least, at $896 per vehicle, but Subaru’s spending was up 61 percent over last February.

There were several reasons for the flurry of deals. After a seven-year stretch of sales increases — and record U.S. sales in 2016 — demand is starting to slow. Automakers want to hold on to their share of that market and avoid expensive cutbacks in auto production.

“It is taking more effort and more money to move the metal this year than last,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Autotrader.

Automakers are also spending more because vehicles cost more. Consumers are rapidly shifting out of cars and into SUVs and trucks, which cost more money. Kelley Blue Book said the price people paid for a vehicle last month was up 2 percent from last February to an average of $34,352.

Ford’s U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve said cars made up 53 percent of new vehicle sales in 2010. In February, they were around 35 percent.

“It is structural and in some ways breathtaking,” LaNeve said. “There’s going to be a car market, but where it eventually gets to, we don’t know.”

The deals will likely continue in the coming months, says Alec Gutierrez, a senior market analyst with the car shopping site KBB.com. The industry has an 80-day supply of vehicles it needs to sell, which is about 20 days more than the level considered ideal. Even if automakers cut production, the deals will ramp down slowly, because automakers lose buyers if they pull back too much.

Automakers said:

— General Motors Co. said its sales rose 4 percent to 237,388. Cadillac and Buick brand sales were down, but Chevrolet and GMC saw increases on strong demand for trucks, SUVs and commercial vans. GM sold 952 Chevrolet Bolts, its new all-electric car.

— Ford Motor Co.’s sales fell 4 percent to 208,440. Ford’s car sales plummeted 24 percent, but its best-seller, the F-Series pickup, saw a 9-percent sales gain. Ford brand sales dropped 4.5 percent while Lincoln sales were up 9 percent.

— Toyota Motor Corp.’s sales dropped 7 percent to 174,339. Toyota’s SUV sales were strong, with the Highlander midsize SUV up 28 percent. But its full-size pickup and car sales were down. Lexus sales also dropped 21 percent.

— Fiat Chrysler’s sales fell 10 percent to 168,326. Alfa Romeo and Ram sales were up, but Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge and Fiat sales all saw double-digit percentage declines. Jeep should bounce back once the brand launches a new Compass small SUV later this spring.

— Nissan Motor Co.’s sales rose 4 percent to 135,740. Nissan’s truck and SUV sales were up 21.5 percent, but the company also got a boost from its Infiniti luxury brand, which saw sales spike 32.5 percent as the new Q60 sedan went on sale.

— Honda Motor Co.’s sales rose 2 percent to 121,686. Honda’s sales of trucks and SUVs jumped 15 percent, but Acura luxury sales fell by the same amount.

— Hyundai Motor Co.’s sales were flat at 53,020. Sales of the Santa Fe SUV jumped 58.5 percent as the newly updated Santa Fe Sport hit the market, but Hyundai’s car sales fell 10 percent.

— Volkswagen brand sales rose 13 percent to 25,145. The brand struggled last year after its diesel cheating scandal, but sales have been rising this year. One factor: Some diesel owners are selling their polluting models back to Volkswagen and using their settlement money to buy new VWs.

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