Unsold 2011 Ford trucks sit at a dealership in the west Denver suburb of Lakewood,… (David Zalubowski / Associated…)
Without the hugely popular cash-for-clunkers program from a year earlier, automakers saw sales dive in August — and they don't see much to stimulate increased purchases the rest of the year.
Automakers sold just under 1 million vehicles last month, down 21% from a year ago and 5% from July. It was the slowest August for the industry since 1983, according to Autodata Corp.
But even taking into account the reason for the sales boomlet a year ago, the industry is turning increasingly pessimistic.
"The pace of recovery is significantly slower than the predictions we had earlier in the year," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst at TrueCar.com, a Santa Monica auto sales and pricing information company. "We are missing some sort of catalyst that would ignite sales."
Through the first eight months of this year auto sales have climbed 8.4% to almost 7.7 million.
General Motors Co. said its sales fell 10.6% in August compared with the same month a year earlier, after factoring out the Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn and Saab brands it closed or sold as part of its bankruptcy reorganization last summer.
Ford Motor Co. sales slid 11%, American Honda Motor Co. fell 32.7% and Toyota Motor Corp. plunged 34.1%, Autodata reported.
Chrysler Group was one of the few automakers to post a gain for the month. Chrysler sales rose 7.4% to 99,611 vehicles compared with the same month a year ago. That's partly because Chrysler did not fare well in last year's cash-for-clunkers program because of the large percentage of gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs in its fleet.
Total combined sales for GM's remaining brands — Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac — dipped to 184,921 vehicles, the automaker said. Including the discontinued brands, sales fell 24.5% to 185,105, Autodata said.
"Last year's cash-for-clunkers program spiked industry sales in 2009, so results this August were, not surprisingly, a bit mixed," said Don Johnson, vice president of GM's U.S. sales operations.
Ford sales amounted to 161,768 vehicles, Autodata reported. Ford said that comparisons to last year were difficult because its fuel-efficient Focus and Escape models had robust sales during last year's cash-for-clunkers program.
The federal stimulus program gave buyers of new vehicles a rebate of $3,500 to $4,500 for trading in old gas-guzzlers..
Sales for Honda, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the stimulus program a year ago, fell to 108,729 vehicles. Sales of its small, gas-sipping Fit and Civic cars each fell by roughly half.
Toyota sales fell to 148,388 vehicles, with the fuel-efficient Corolla plummeting 53% to 20,280.
As tough a month as August was, some dealers have been able to post gains through the first eight months.
"March, May and July were pretty good months," said Chris Darby, general sales manager of North Hollywood Toyota. The dealership has seen "a bit of an upswing" over last year with business up about 10%, he said.
Shoppers, however, are tending to spend less when they do make a purchase.
"In the Prius line, the hot model is the base model. And people are not buying as many accessories as they have in the past," Darby said.
That's why some in the industry are starting to think that this year won't be as good as they had hoped.
"I am not as optimistic as some of the others in the industry," said John Krafcik, chief executive of Hyundai Motor America, whose sales fell 11.4% to 53,603 vehicles. He doesn't see how sales will improve in the second half of the year.
"The midterm elections will suck up advertising space and time and put people in a bad mood," Krafcik said. "Housing sales will continue to be weak. There's almost a perfect link to housing and car sales."
Krafcik said the auto industry might reach sales of 11.2 million this year, well below the 11.5 million to 12 million predicted at the start of the year. And 2011 won't be a robust year for sales either.
"I would be happy if we get to 12.2 million next year," Krafcik said. That would place the 2009-2011 sales years as one of the worst periods for auto sales in the last three decades.