Sandy gives extra boost to auto sales

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DETROIT — Hurricane Sandy gave an extra boost to already strong U.S. auto sales last month, though carmakers warned that uncertainty over the “fiscal cliff” could undo some of those gains.

Most major companies posted impressive increases from a year earlier. Only General Motors was left struggling to explain its 3 percent sales gain and large inventory of unsold trucks.

The average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is approaching a record 11 years, so many people are looking to replace older cars.

Sandy just boosted the demand. The storm added 20,000 to 30,000 sales industry-wide in November, mostly from people who planned to buy cars in October but had to delay their purchases, Ford estimated. Replacement of storm-damaged vehicles is expected to drive sales for several months. GM estimates that 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles will eventually need to be replaced.

November sales, when calculated on an annual basis, are likely to be 15 million or more, the highest rate since March 2008, according to LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area consulting firm. That’s higher than the 14.3 million annual rate so far this year, even though November is normally a lackluster month because of cold weather and holiday anticipation. Both GM and Chrysler predicted November sales would run
at an annual rate of 15.3 million.

If sales end up at 15 million for the year, it would be a vast improvement over the 10.4 million in 2009, during the recession. Sales would still fall short of the recent peak of around 17 million in 2005.

“Exactly how much growth we can expect next year will depend in part on how Congress and the president resolve the fiscal cliff issue,” said Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. sales chief. “Markets and consumers hate uncertainty.”

GM’s biggest brand, Chevrolet, reported flat sales over last year despite new products such as the Spark minicar. Silverado pickup sales fell 10 percent.

GM’s sales have been trailing the industry all year. They were up 4 percent through October, compared with the industry-wide increase of 14 percent.

GM said its competitors resorted to higher than usual incentives last month to get rid of 2012 model-year trucks. GM, which had more 2013 trucks on its lots, was only offering an average of $500 per truck, a third of what others were offering. GM has been trying to hold the line on costly incentives, which can hurt resale value and brand image.

Some analysts think GM will be forced to offer more deals in December to clear out higher-than-forecast inventory.

Toyota said its 17 percent sales increase was partly linked to post-Sandy demand. Honda was up 39 percent thanks to strong sales of the new Accord sedan and clearance deals on the outgoing Civic, which was replaced by a new 2013 Civic at the end of the month.

Luxury cars saw their usual year-end surge as holiday commercials started crowding the airwaves. Porsche’s sales rose 71 percent to 3,865, a record month for the automaker. Infiniti, Acura, BMW and Lexus all reported big gains.


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