After years in the slow lane, cars may finally be taking back the roads from sport utility vehicles and trucks.
Soaring gasoline prices and flagging consumer confidence drove the industry to new depths last month, with shoppers -- when they did buy -- going for fuel-efficient, smaller cars. In a month that saw the lowest overall U.S. vehicle sales in 13 years, carmakers saw light-truck and SUV sales plummet 17.4% compared with April 2007, according to Autodata Inc., while passenger cars were up 5.2%.
For years, sales of trucks and SUVs far outpaced passenger car sales. But in April, Americans bought 64,310 more cars than trucks and SUVs, continuing a trend that began in March, when cars pulled ahead by about 3,000.
"The most basic historical truth is that when fuel prices go up, people buy smaller cars," said Aaron Bragman, auto industry analyst at Global Insight, noting that gas, which hit a national average of about $3.61 a gallon this week, may now be the leading factor in automobile choice. "Trucks are heading south."
From carmaker to carmaker, the story was much the same. General Motors Corp., the top-selling automaker in the U.S., was flat in car sales, but down 26.7% in trucks. Ford Motor Co., crowing about a 44% increase in sales of its popular new Focus, got hit to the tune of 18% on the truck side. Accounting for total car and truck sales, both had overall sales declines for the month, down 16.2% and 12.1%, respectively.
Even Japanese carmakers, more buoyant than the Detroit Three in overall sales, took their licks on trucks, with Nissan Motor Co. truck sales down 11.7%, even as its car sales increased 20%. Toyota Motor Corp., too, lost big on trucks, with an 8% decline balancing against an 11.9% increase in cars.
Since automakers like Nissan and Toyota have a much higher ratio of cars to trucks than their U.S. counterparts, they enjoyed overall sales increases last month, with Toyota up 6.7% and Nissan up 3.4%.
Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com, however, was quick to point out that even the Japanese carmakers are slightly down overall through the first four months of the year. With consumer confidence in the toilet, "a lot of people are not buying, period. The economy is causing people to postpone choices," he said.
Overall, Americans purchased 1.25 million vehicles in April, 110,000 fewer than in April 2007 and below Edmunds.com's forecast of 1.3 million. "The month was even lower than we expected," Toprak said.
On the heels of the results, Standard & Poor's cut its expectations for 2008 total sales by 150,000 vehicles to 15.15 million. Last year, U.S. consumers bought 16.1 million cars and trucks; if consumers were to continue buying at April's rate through the remainder of 2008, the yearly total would be only 14.4 million.
Carmakers, eager to find some ray of sunshine, pointed out sales increases of individual models or segments.
"Consumer preference is shifting and we're shifting with it, as evidenced by our strong car and crossover sales," said Mark LaNeve, vice president of sales and marketing for GM North America. A few models of crossover vehicles including the Buick Enclave sold well, but overall the segment was down slightly.
But then again, when the crucial pickup market is down more than 20%, perhaps a 0.4% decline isn't all that negative.
Cars, meanwhile, sold -- and the smaller, the better.
The Toyota Yaris, an $11,350 econobox that can get upward of 30 miles per gallon, was up 58%, while the comparable Honda Fit was up 67%. There were also gainers among mid-size cars, with the Nissan Altima leading the charge at 39%. The hybrid Prius, with 21,757 sold, was up 67%.
Chrysler couldn't find any silver lining in the numbers. Truck sales dropped 26.4% and cars slid 14%. Its top-selling vehicle, the Dodge Ram full-size pickup, was down 23%.
Several automakers predict a rebound in the second half of 2008, saying that the federal economic stimulus package will get drivers on dealership lots by summer. But skepticism outside the industry is abundant.
"I don't think a $600 check for each person will get anyone to buy more cars," Bragman said. "Maybe they'll pay their mortgages instead."
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Little engines that could
Fuel economy: 29 mpg city/36 highway (32 combined)
April sales: 11,232, up 58%
Fuel economy: 24 mpg city/35 highway (28 combined)
April sales: 23,850, up 44%