March Volkswagen Sales Better Than February, But Still Falling

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain

Compared with February 2016, March 2016’s U.S. sales at the Volkswagen brand jumped 21 percent.

So everything’s back to normal, right? The diesel emissions scandal’s impact has clearly waned, right? Volkswagen’s U.S. team obviously figured out how to market, price, and stock a gas-only lineup, right?

No. This is why we examine an automaker’s sales volume on a year-over-year basis, and why understanding the seasonality of the auto business is essential.

In March, as in February, Volkswagen earned 1.7 percent of the U.S. auto industry’s volume. Yes, Volkswagen volume grew by about a fifth, but the industry grew by about a fifth. The industry sold 250,000 more new vehicles in March than in February. Three additional selling days certainly helped — the daily selling rate was up by less than 6 percent.

Yet so consistent is the massive industry-wide sales increase in March, as the buying season truly kicks off, that the auto industry has adopted a fairly accurate method for determining the Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate. SAAR is the means of determining how the rate of sales in a high-volume month such as March (or May, August, or December) or a low-volume month (January and February most notably) would play over the course of a calendar year.

Thus, March, with nearly 1.6 million new vehicle sales, wasn’t nearly as healthy as February, with its 1.34 million new vehicle sales. The U.S. auto industry’s SAAR fell from 17.5 million units in February to slightly less than 16.6 million units in March, a 13-month low.

Granted, the U.S. auto industry’s seasonality isn’t nearly as severe as in other countries. Due in part to plate changes in March, the United Kingdom’s auto industry just exploded with its best March ever, with twice as many sales last month as in January and February combined. The record level of sales was noteworthy, but the March surge is predictable. Over the previous five years, the month of March accounted for 18 percent of the new vehicles sold in the UK. March, you’ll recall, is responsible for 8 percent of the days on your calendar.

(Note: The Golf and Polo are the fourth and sixth-best-selling vehicles in the UK. As a duo, they’re earning nearly triple the market share of the entire Volkswagen brand in America.)

Even in Canada, the industry is prone to tremendous swings from winter to spring. May volume in 2014 and 2015 was double January’s sales total.

The U.S. auto industry’s fluctuations over the course of a given year aren’t as extreme. But there is a level of predictability to the seasonal changes, which is why it’s unwise to credit Volkswagen with a 21-percent sales month-to-month increase in March. Year-over-year, Volkswagen volume was down 10 percent in March 2016, the third consecutive March decline for the Volkswagen brand, even as the industry’s March volume expanded for a seventh consecutive year. Volkswagen of America owned 2.7 percent of the U.S. market in March 2012; only 1.7 percent in March 2016.

Year-over-year, March sales of the core Golf hatchback, GTI, Golf R, e-Golf, Jetta sedan, Beetle, Eos, Passat, CC, and Touareg declined, collectively tumbling by 4,616 units, or 17 percent.

Volkswagen did manage to sell 42-percent more wagons in March 2016, and Tiguan volume jumped 53 percent to a March high of 3,519 units. But the Golf SportWagen and Tiguan remain low-volume models, contributing less than one out of every five Volkswagen sales in the first-quarter of 2016. The Golf Alltrack arrives in the fall.

For Volkswagen’s U.S. operations, the TDI scandal last September arrived at a low point for the brand. Volkswagen’s U.S. sales declined in 22 of 29 months ending in August of last year. Prior to noxious news, Volkswagen was already on track for 2015 volume to fall to a four-year low despite record industry-wide sales.

As for April, the market typically contracts by approximately 10 percent compared with March, although the degree to which March outperforms April has decreased steadily over the last four years. If Volkswagen maintains its hold on 1.7 percent of the U.S. auto market and the overall market decreases by 10 percent, Volkswagen would sell approximately 24,400 new vehicles in April, a 19-percent year-over-year loss.

Let’s see if that happens.

[Images: Bettle and Polos, Volkswagen; GTI, © 2014 Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars]

Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.

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  • Whatnext Whatnext on Apr 14, 2016

    Hmm, I have to say that it seems as if you're trying to make this a worse story than it is. Last March VW had diesels to sell (@15-20% of their sales) but this March they don't. And yet their sales only fell by 10%, so diesel customers might be staying home, but others aren't. Buyers definitely aren't punishing VW for unethical behaviour. In fact when you consider how old three of their main products are (Jetta, Passat, Tiguan) it's quite remarkable sales have held up this well.

  • Von Von on Apr 14, 2016

    Are we going to start a VW death watch?

    • See 3 previous
    • LeafMeAlone LeafMeAlone on Apr 14, 2016

      @Von Why not try something new? Instead of a death watch, why not create a suicide pact?

  • John Hummer owners don't care. Like shingles.
  • Wjtinfwb Funny. When EV's were bursting onto the scene; Tesla's, Volt's, Leaf's pure EV was all the rage and Hybrids were derided because they still used a gas engine to make them, ahem; usable. Even Volt's were later derided when it was revealed that the Volt's gas engine was actually connected to the wheels, not just a generator. Now, Hybrids are warmly welcomed into the Electric fraternity by virtue of being "electrified". If a change in definition is what it takes, I'm all for it. Hybrid's make so much sense in most American's usage patterns and if needed you can drive one cross-country essentially non-stop. Glad to see Hybrid's getting the love.
  • 3-On-The-Tree We also had a 1973 IH Scout that we rebuilt the engine in and it had dual glass packs, real loud. I miss those days.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Jeff thanks. Back in 1990 we had a 1964 Dodge D100 with a slant six with a 3 on the tree. I taught myself how to drive a standard in that truck. It was my one of many journeys into Mopar land. Had a 1973 Plymouth duster with a slant six and a 1974 Dodge Dart Custom with 318 V8. Great cars and easy to work on.
  • Akear What is GM good at?You led Mary............................................What a disgrace!
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