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Growth in U.S. auto sales slows in April

After jumping 13.3% in the first three months, the number of vehicles sold last month rises just 2.3%. Automakers blame the Easter holiday, bad weather and a quirk in the calendar.

May 02, 2012|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • General Motors, the nation’s biggest auto company, saw its sales fall 8.2% to 213,387 vehicles in April. Above, Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano bodies are welded at a factory in Lake Orion, Mich.
General Motors, the nation’s biggest auto company, saw its sales… (Jeff Kowalsky, Bloomberg )

Strong gains in U.S. auto sales over the last six months eased in April as the Easter holiday, bad weather and fewer selling days ate into the business of some of the largest automakers, includingGeneral Motors Co. andFord Motor Co.

But analysts and industry officials don't see the industry slipping further and said the falloff was probably temporary.

"Taking it all into consideration, we are holding the trend of a moderate recovery," said Jeff Schuster, an analyst at LMC Automotive.

Industrywide sales rose just 2.3% over April 2011 to almost 1.2 million vehicles, according to research firm Autodata Corp. That was well below the 13.3% gain for the first three months of the year, as General Motors, Ford,Honda Motor Co., andNissan Motor Co.posted declines.

GM, the nation's biggest auto company, saw its sales fall 8.2% to 213,387 vehicles in April. Much of the decline came largely because of fewer sales to fleet customers such as rental car companies, government agencies and commercial customers.

Ford sales fell 5.1% to 179,658 vehicles. The automaker's results were hurt by a 44% plunge in sales of its smallest car, the Fiesta, and slower sales at its Lincoln luxury car brand.

Sales growth at South Korean automakersHyundai Motor Co.and Kia Motors America also hit the brakes in April. The sister companies have consistently logged double-digit percentage increases — among the largest of any automakers in the U.S. market — but in April each was barely able to squeeze out a 1% gain.

Hyundai sales rose just 0.8% to 62,264, while Kia posted a 1% gain to 47,550 vehicles.

One contributor to the slower growth was a quirk in the calendar. April was only the second month in the last 10 years in which there were three fewer selling days compared with the same month a year earlier, according to GM. Still, the seasonally adjusted annualized sales pace was unchanged from March at 14.4 million vehicles.

"There was more moderated retail demand across the industry.... It picked up as we went through the month," said Jonathan Browning, chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America, which saw sales rise 27.3% to 49,295.

Other automakers reported that April sales started slow but then strengthened.

Toyota Motor Corp., recovering from production and supply problems caused by the Japanese earthquake last year, said its U.S. sales rose 11.6% to 178,044 vehicles. It gained more than a full percentage point of market share, and at 15%, barely trails Ford.

"What a difference a year makes for Toyota. This time last year, its market share started to decline from the supply shortage in Japan. But this year Toyota is hitting its stride with a new Camry and an expanded Prius lineup, which is appealing to fuel-price-conscious consumers," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company

Chrysler Group sales rose 20.4% to 141,165 vehicles.

Overall the market remains on a steady recovery track from the historic lows it suffered during the recent recession, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst at auto price information company TrueCar.

"There are automakers that are showing some weaknesses, including Ford and Nissan, but I don't see a fundamental problem in the marketplace," Toprak said.

Nissan's sales are off because it reduced its incentive spending more than other automakers last month, cutting what it offered an average of 11%, or $330 per car, Toprak said.

"It may be that the nature of their buyers are very much bargain hunters," he said.

Likewise, Ford had the second-largest drop in incentives, Toprak said.

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