COVID-19 Fallout: U.S. Auto Sales Crater in Q1

Matthew Guy
by Matthew Guy

Surprising exactly no one, sales numbers for the automotive industry in this country are grim. With stay-at-home edicts being encouraged in most states and various social distancing measures in place to help temper the spread of COVID-19, it’s understandable that a limited numbers of customers are darkening the doors of the few showrooms that remain open.

The first two months of this year were reasonably robust, so the negative numbers can almost entirely be chalked up to March’s challenging conditions (to put it mildly). As a programming note, the brands of Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover, and Mercedes-Benz won’t we releasing their numbers until later in the month. This explains the holes in our chart.

It’s worth noting at this time that several manufacturers have jumped on board the pandemic response efforts and pivoted their production facilities to make medical equipment. This is no small feat. Others have donated equipment to healthcare providers. For these actions, we applaud them all.

As the situation remains quite fluid, some dealers remain open while others have shuttered their doors for now.

“Many have taken extraordinary steps, ranging from enhanced sanitizing protocols for their showrooms to the offer of home delivery and other concierge services to keep consumers safe,” said U.S. Head of Sales Jeff Kommor. “I applaud all of them for their efforts.”

General Motors noted that it has enabled OnStar Crisis Assist services for all connected vehicle owners, as well as complimentary in-vehicle data for all Wi-Fi-equipped vehicles.

In terms of raw numbers — well, there you have it. The picture is bleak and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. As an example, Fiat Chrysler’s Q1 U.S. sales were 446,768 vehicles compared with 498,425 for the same period a year earlier. Retail sales were 306,898 vehicles for the quarter, meaning fleet accounted for 31 percent of total sales. You can draw your own conclusions there.

Ram pickups were actually up 7 percent in Q1, indicating they must have been on a tear for the first two months of this year. One thing that sticks out like a sore thumb at FCA is that brand’s namesake. Fiat itself, as an entire brand, sold less as a whole than any other individual vehicle in the company save for the rare-as-hen’s teeth Alfa 4C.

By the way, many automakers have followed Ford’s lead and switched to a quarterly reporting system. This clarifies why our chart only shows year-to-date numbers and no month-over-month results. Still, there are a few that do choose to shine a light on their monthly efforts.

Hyundai, for example, was down in March by 49 percent compared to the same time frame one year ago. Given world events, this is not unexpected. However, thanks to their reporting transparency, we can see that they grew 11 percent in January and February combined. Year-to-date, taking March into account, they’re down 11 percent overall. Interestingly, and despite the American public’s appetite for crossovers, the Elantra remains its best-selling model. Note, however, that it has a YTD lead of about 2,000 units over the Tucson compared to an 8,000-unit advantage this time last year.

Talking heads are saying industry sales as a whole rose 4 percent in the first two months of this year. Since then, especially in major cities where stay-at-home orders have been issued, new-vehicle sales typically dropped 80 percent within a few days, according to the boffins at J.D. Power and Associates. At this rate, the industry will be fortunate to crack 11 million units for the entirety of 2020. For comparison, the market bottomed out at something near 10 mil during the dark days of 2009.

We can only guess what April will bring. Stay safe, everyone.

[Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]

Matthew Guy
Matthew Guy

Matthew buys, sells, fixes, & races cars. As a human index of auto & auction knowledge, he is fond of making money and offering loud opinions.

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  • Jeff S Jeff S on Apr 03, 2020

    20k off of an F350 that is an unbelievable deal. If you are still working that might be a buy for you if you are planning on getting one in the next few years. I saw a new 2020 Colorado WT for less than 17k which is just above the base model.

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Apr 03, 2020

    • Kia - "More Powerful Than COVID-19"© (sales *up* 1%) • Anything perceived as a potential Zombie Apocalypse Response Vehicle (ZARC™) is doing relatively better (see Ram et al.).

  • FreedMike "This week, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) "Oh, THAT clown. The Undistinguished Gentleman and Brave Christian Culture Warrior from North Arkansas - I mean, Missouri - who was caught pulling a Brave Sir Robin act on January 6th, after he egged on the rioters? This guy shouldn't be running for dog catcher, must less consuming oxygen in the Senate chamber. Assess his proposals accordingly.
  • EBFlex Yawn. It’s still a white refrigerator. A Camry has more soul and passion than this.
  • Jkross22 For as nice as these were at the time, I always preferred the 850, even with wrong wheel drive. Especially the early 90s. In sedan form. The 850R. Mmmmm.
  • FreedMike Well, if you want a Swedish cockroach that's easy to work on, here's your ticket. Tad overpriced but it's an asking price, after all. And those old Volvo seats are divine. It'd be worth a look.
  • SCE to AUX "...has arguably advantaged the Asian nation by subsidizing electric vehicles, it has attempted to prioritize more domestic manufacturing by pouring money atop the relevant industries via the so-called Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act"Seems like you're trying to diss the Biden Administration before crediting its protectionism in the IRA.Chinese-made EV batteries aren't part of the subsidy program, so subsidizing EVs hasn't advantaged China. But the general sourcing of Chinese-made components - whether in a subsidized car or not - does help China.This is a general problem in the US economy. Everybody wants to wave the flag, but nobody wants to be the high-cost supplier, and nobody wants to pay more.The same scenario played out 50 years ago, except the competitor was Japan. At the end of the day, protectionism didn't work, and consumers got what they wanted.