The Detroit Three can thank low gas prices for sales gains in September, which led to marketshare gains for General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, as U.S. light-vehicle sales reached their highest level since April.
GM's U.S. sales grew 19.7 percent in September and Chrysler's rose 27.2 percent. Each gained 1.7 points of market share, outpacing the U.S. market's 10 percent increase. Ford Motor Co.'s sales also increased 9 percent. Despite an economy that continues to struggle, all three automakers benefited as lower gas prices encouraged consumers to buy pickups and SUVs. By Monday, U.S. gas prices had fallen to an average of $3.42 for a gallon of regular, compared with $3.66 in early September, according to AAA. Consumers responded by boosting sales of Ford Explorers 203.6 percent, Ram pickups 45 percent and Chevy Tahoes 62.5 percent.
"That's still their profit centers, so that's something we like to see," said Efraim Levy, an analyst with S&P Capital IQ. "What we'd really like to see is the kind of economic growth, like construction and contractor business, that will accelerate the gains."
Many consumers have held off purchases since April. Higher gas prices, political gridlock, high unemployment and shortages of vehicles from Honda and Toyota combined to slow new car vehicle sales. Replenished stocks of Toyotas and Hondas helped bring enough buyers back to push U.S. light-vehicle sales to a 13.1 million seasonally adjusted annual rate, beating analysts' predictions and squelching concerns that the uphill recovery had started trickling backward.
A March earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc on Japanese production worldwide, but inventories are expected to recover to pre-disaster levels through year's end, leading to higher sales for the automakers and the industry. Automakers reaffirmed their expectations for U.S. light-vehicle sales to total reach 12.8 million this year, up from a 12.6 million average sales rate through September.
Toyota and Honda are both riding a five-month losing streak, but Honda's 8 percent sales drop was its slimmest this year.
Toyota predicted a yearover- year sales gain in October, after sales slid 17.5 percent in September. Its production came back in time for the launch the updated Tacoma pickup and all-new 2012 Camry sedan last month and, in October, the new Yaris subcompact and larger Prius V. Together, the new vehicles make up Toyota's biggest barrage of new products in 25 years, Toyota general manager Bob Carter said, giving the automaker "a little spring in our step."
But Ford's newest redesigned car, the Focus compact, has struggled. After launching in March, the Focus' 24.1 percent decline in September was its third straight, as the car has been in short supply at dealerships.
The car's production, industry observers say, has been hurt by supply problems at a Saline parts plant, although executives continue to deny any production problems. Ford sales chief Ken Czubay insisted sales, which numbered 10,309 last month, are "on track with where we wanted to be."
But six months into the Chevrolet Cruze's launch, its sales were slightly more than 18,000 in September.